Category: Accounting

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Against Politics and Finance in Accounting

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An old joke says every financial crisis needs an accounting culprit to blame. The current crisis may be attributable instead to the dominance of modern finance theory and subordination of traditional accounting principles. Two generations of finance theorists—in business and law schools—developed elaborate models to measure and manage risk in a theoretical world of efficient markets where accounting is not relevant.

Yet two strange twists have arisen—one showing the intellectual limits of the finance story and the other the dark art of making accounting into a political issue. Both concern debate over how to measure financial assets on a balance sheet—the so-called fair value debate.

First, for decades, proponents of modern finance theory urged standard setters to direct asset measurements using fair value rather than applying traditional accounting conventions. The prescription was based on assertions that emphasized the reliability of efficient markets to reveal relevant values. Proponents said traditional accounting conventions, using acquisition cost adjusted over time, were comparatively impoverished.

Amid the crisis, those same people shift their stance, now saying fair value measures in stressful markets are either misleading or put downward pressure on values that could render owners of impaired assets, especially banks, insolvent. On its face, this is an admission about the limits of markets to reveal reliable asset values, that modern finance theory is impoverished.

Second, without opining on the merits of measuring assets at fair value or using historical cost accounting conventions, this issue, once again, is turning accounting standard setting into a political expression rather than a professional one. Politicians in Congress, under heavy bank lobbying, pressured the US standard setter [the Financial Accounting Standards Board] to adopt bank-friendly approaches to asset measurement.   Now, Congressional bills  (here, for example, and noted here) contemplate empowering politicians and/or a new federal agency to oversee US accounting standard setting, equipping them with veto rights over any accounting standards the political power consensus disfavors.

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PCAOB’s Constitutionality

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to set standards and supervise the public auditing profession.   A pending Supreme Court case will consider whether the result is constitutional under the Appointments Clause and separation of powers principles.   The DC Circuit thought it was good enough, seeing the Board as a subsidiary of the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Thanks to Donna Nagy, a diverse group of law professors (including me)  join an amicus brief challenging that stance.    We emphasize that we believe that the idea of the Board is appealing but the design Congress chose is flawed.   A copy of the brief is available here.

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New Accounting Book Coming

accounting-bookEarlier this summer, teachers using my accounting textbook received an update highlighting developments for use in Fall classes. Changes will appear in the forthcoming fifth edition, due out in time for Spring classes.

I’ve completed and submitted the manuscript and am now finishing revisions to the Teacher’s Manual and PowerPoint slides. The wonderful publicity department at West, my publisher, will release some version of the following squib on the book:

Cunningham’s Introductory Accounting, Finance and Auditing, adopted at some 70 schools in its 12-year history, presents accounting, finance and auditing using clear narrative with extensive illustrations. It balances accessibility with rigor.

 
Pedagogical features that make it easy to use include a coherent layout, complete set of PowerPoint slides, comprehensive Problems and Solutions, intriguing Conceptual Questions and International Comparisons plus a Glossary, Bibliography, Index and Teacher’s Manual.

 
The fifth edition adds material on international accounting and other hot topics. It can be used as the primary book for a one-, two- or three-credit accounting course or to supplement business associations, corporations or corporate finance courses.

Fleshing that out a bit, changes from the fourth to fifth edition are far less extensive than changes made from the third to the fourth edition in 2005. No major overhaul is undertaken and no new chapters are added.

But I have made several pedagogical improvements, added materials on international financial reporting standards (IFRS), and updated a few discrete accounting and auditing topics. The main results are as follows. Read More

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Copyright to Private Standards Government Embraces

golden-copyrightUnder what circumstances do privately-generated standards lose copyright protection by virtue of governmental approval, mandate or adoption of them? The law on this subject remains unsettled, with a few somewhat conflicting federal circuit court decisions and no Supreme Court direction. The issue is when standards become functional law so that, under principles of justice dating to Roman times, they must be freely accessible to the public.

Interest heats up after a firm based in California asks people to scan works that have been referenced in the Code of Federal Regulations for inclusion in the firm’s free standards database. This is a bold move for the firm to undertake and a potentially risky one for those responding to its request.   My 2005 Michigan Law Review piece offered a framework for resolving these problems; the following abstracts it a bit and applies it to the California firm’s request. Read More

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Treatment Differences in US / International Accounting

global and local accounting.jpgAmid continuing enthusiasm for the US to abandon its traditional accounting standards in favor of those set by an international body in London, insufficient attention is paid to differences in how the two treat particular questions and what those different treatments reflect about political realities.

In late August 2008 on this blog, I asked whether readers were aware of lists or charts illustrating treatment differences between US and international accounting standards. Comments and other research yielded modest results. The relevant literature tends to focus on differences in bottom lines between the two systems, not treatment differences.

This gap led Bill Bratton (Georgetown) and I to believe that a list or chart of treatment differences, with contextual analysis, would be useful to the literature (in both accounting and in law). As a result, Prof. Bratton and I prepared a contribution for the Virginia Law Review, commenting on a related paper by Jim Cox (Duke).

Our piece is now available here. The chart of treatment differences appears as the Appendix, at pp. 17-26. The preceding pages synthesize how these differences reflect deeply divergent philosophical and political realities, despite widespread talk of how the two standards are convergent.

The paper’s abstract reads as follows:

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As If Accounting

Do reasonable Americans today regard housing markets, credit markets, stock markets or collectibles markets to reflect accurately the fair value of their homes, corporate bonds/equity and collectibles? My guess is that a large number could honestly and in good faith say “no, that they do not,” whether correctly or incorrectly. Many might say instead that at least some of these markets are at least periodically distressed (or even inactive in the case of collectibles and some housing markets) and that related prices, if any, “really represent distressed sales.”

If so, according to the logic of new accounting rules the country’s independent accounting standard setter adopted last week, valuation of these items may not accurately be ascertained by using recent comparable home sales or trading prices for corporate debt and common stock or auction sales of collectibles. Instead, they could be ascertained by reference to the owner’s own judgments about what those assets would sell for in an “orderly transaction” and “active market.”

The accounting body (the Financial Accounting Standards Board) last week gave analogous authorization to corporate America (and FASB’s London-based counterpart is being pressured to follow suit). In its plain English version of these new rules, FASB says they are designed “to figure out fair values when there is no active market or where the price inputs being used really represent distressed sales.” FASB continues: “The objective is to reflect how much an asset would be sold for in an orderly transaction (as opposed to a distressed or forced transaction) .”

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The Great Repression

Great Repression Human Brain in Cage.jpgAmid contending descriptions of the prevailing economic crisis, and candidates for causes and responses, I nominate The Great Repression and, in doing so, point out how unconscious exclusion of painful realities from the conscious mind caused the crisis and continues to infect policy responses to it.

No consensus appears on what to call the prevailing economic crisis, let alone diagnostics of its causes or prescriptions for cure. It’s not yet so severe to warrant Great Depression II or so mild to be called a mere recession. As something in between, some are tempted to call it a Great Recession.

People seem agreed that an asset price bubble, especially in housing, manifested crisis, but disagree on exact culprits. Consumers and businesses respond by curtailing borrowing and spending, but government’s responses are exactly the opposite.

All candidates for culprits ultimately involve false stories that people—citizens, business people, regulators and politicians alike—told themselves. Exemplars: the American dream of home ownership can be made available to all; housing prices tend inexorably upward; massive current borrowing can be repaid from future assumed prosperity; financial risk can be diversified, hedged, securitized away by carving up underlying financial instruments; regulators can let market participants self-monitor and self-correct; and politicians can safely respond to citizen appetites by sustaining all these false beliefs.

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Silver Lining and Lesson Department

silver lining in a cloud.jpgA compressed portrayal of US failures evident in the current crisis may arise from the following list of representations:

(A) firms: Countrywide, Fannie Mae, AIG, Citigroup, Moody’s, Lehman Brothers, General Motors;

(B) industries: mortgage origination, mortgage finance, insurance, commercial banking, rating agencies, investment banking, automobile manufacturing and finance;

(C) regulators: state mortgage, insurance and banking overseers; Federal Housing Finance Agency; Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission; Federal Reserve, Treasury, Office of Comptroller of the Currency; Federal Deposit Insurance Commission;

(D) lawmakers: Congress, Congress, Congress, Congress, Congress.

What representations do not appear on this list? Deloitte Touche et al, the auditing industry, and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. Three cheers.

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Forms May Fail Big Four Auditing Firms

org chart.jpgA common form of business organization designed to limit liability of participants may have failed the four largest auditing firms, according to a judicial opinion last week refusing a motion for summary judgment based on the design. The case, involving claims by defrauded investors in the Italian company, Parmalat, seeks to hold liable affiliates of the Italian accounting firm found culpable in the fraud, Deloitte S.p.A. The court refused to dismiss the latter’s US affiliate, Deloitte Touche LLP, and the Swiss entity that unites them, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

If sustained after further fact resolution, the result would expose Deloitte US to crushing legal liability—and likewise expand the liability exposure of the other three large auditing firms that use similar structures (Ernst & Young; KPMG; and PriceWaterhouseCoopers). That, in turn, could increase the risks that one of those four firms may soon fail, which would make it difficult or impossible for many large publicly-listed companies to find outside auditors as required by federal securities laws. Ultimately, this could mean US federal governmental takeover of the traditional process of private audits of listed companies.

At issue in the Parmalat securities case against Deloitte is the standard structure that the four large auditing firms use. They operate as networks of scores of member firms organized as separate legal entities in jurisdictions where they practice. They enter into agreements that enable identifying members with the global brand name and practice of a global firm. These structures are designed to promote a recognizable professional identity while insulating each member from the others’ liabilities. The delicacy of the balance appears in how the court last week questioned its liability limiting efficacy.

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Hello Ms. Schapiro

SEC Seal.gifThe Senate on Thursday confirmed President Barack Obama’s nomination of Mary Schapiro as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Ms. Schapiro’s written answers to questions posed by Senator Carl Levin, she indicates a refreshingly sharp break with many policies of her predecessor, Chris Cox.

Differences appear on numerous particular subjects. These reflect a general orientation to re-dedicate the agency to its primary mission of investor protection. Examples from Ms. Schapiro’s letter follow (with full text available here from Investment News):

1. Corporate Governance. Ms. Schapiro favors (a) rules letting shareholders (at least significant, long-time holders) nominate candidates for corporate boards of directors; and (b) rules allowing shareholders to express advisory opinions and votes on executive compensation .

2. International Accounting. Ms. Schapiro, unlike Mr. Cox: (a) does not believe that the International Accounting Standards Board meets US legal criteria and is not prepared to delegate authority to it; and (b) believes that US authorities must oversee foreign auditing firms auditing financial statements of companies with securities listed in the US.

3. Internal Controls. Ms. Schapiro, unlike Mr. Cox, would enforce laws requiring internal controls as to small and large public companies alike.

4. Accounting. Ms. Schapiro also believes in: (a) maintaining the independence of the US accounting standard setter, the Financial Accounting Standards Board; (b) cracking down against abuses of off-balance sheet accounting; and (c) continuing the requirement that stock options be accounted for as compensation expense.

5. Regulatory Scope. Ms. Schapiro favors: (a) regulating hedge funds; (b) strengthening capital requirements for securities brokers; and (c) strengthening regulation of rating agencies.

So far so great.