American securities regulators vote to ditch their own accounting standards
SCORE a point for globalisation. In a landmark vote on Wednesday August 27th America’s financial-markets watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), paved the way for its companies to switch from America’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) to international accounting standards. In a field that is, by reputation, notoriously dull, this looks like something to get genuinely excited about.
GAAP was the beancounter’s gold standard for decades, but it is now widely seen as cumbersome. Most other countries have embraced the international rules, known as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). The regulators’ plan envisages American-based multinationals switching to the standards voluntarily in 2010. The SEC would then vote on whether to require all other companies to do the same, starting in 2014. The commission has already cleared the way for overseas firms to use IFRS when doing business or listing securities in America.
Christopher Cox, the SEC’s chairman, hailed the move to an “international language of disclosure, transparency and comparability.” Big companies have long been preparing for it with enthusiasm. It will bring each of them one-off costs in the tens of millions, but the savings over time will dwarf the initial outlay. It could also mean greater profits: one study found that the majority of American firms made more under the foreign rules. Investors, too, have reason to rejoice. It will make it easier to compare, say, a French drug company with an American rival. And the compliance costs of duplicate accounting, the bulk of which investors ultimately bear, will disappear.
Accountants point to other benefits. IFRS is less complex than GAAP, with fewer exceptions; America’s accounting rules, like its tax code, are creaking under bolted-on guidance. It is also more principles-based, granting auditors greater room to use judgment. This can be good or bad, of course, but most experts say more leeway is needed.
For several years, the SEC and the London-based International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), which oversees the international rules, focused on steadily bringing the two sets of standards together. But it has been a struggle, largely thanks to the Byzantine nature of the American system. Mr Cox embraced the more radical approach approved this week in the belief that it would boost the competitiveness of American firms by removing barriers to investment. The “roadmap” is the latest in a string of proposals under his leadership designed to bring American and foreign markets closer together.
Not everyone is happy. Some politicians, including the head of the congressional committee that oversees the SEC, worry about ceding standard-setting power to the IASB. Even though America has seats on its board, there is concern that it will be under-represented. Some want it to have influence commensurate with the size of America’s equity markets, which account for almost half of global market capitalisation. Others worry about the IASB’s finances and its susceptibility to outside influence. One of the SEC’s commissioners said the plan should only be waved through once it is clear that secure, independent funding is in place.
There are worries overseas too, for instance that the SEC will try to interfere with IFRS and interpret it in a narrow, prescriptive way. Standards issued by the IASB are supposed to be endorsed without modification. It remains to be seen whether America will be able to accept this. Its relations with international rulemakers can be thorny: think of the World Trade Organisation.
Plenty of other issues still have to be resolved. Some are technical: IFRS allows fewer securitised assets to be kept off the books than GAAP does, for instance—a matter of import for banks. Others are broader and altogether more difficult. For an accounting framework that rests largely on judgment to flourish in rules-based America, the legal and regulatory environment there will need to “evolve”, says PricewaterhouseCoopers, a big accounting firm. That is putting it gently. Still, this week’s vote was a momentous step—and in the right direction.
6 months ago