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.