Doubts Emerge Over U.S. Move to Global Accounting
By Dena Aubin
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Once thought inevitable, a decisive move by the United States to one-world accounting is now in serious doubt.
Blame delays, shifting timelines, or huge debt and high unemployment problems in the United States' own back yard, but the idea of a massive change in companies' accounting framework is not the crowd-pleaser it once was.
"If there was a compelling value proposition that said, 'as a policy, this is the right thing to do,' it would be going faster than it's going," said Steven Nielsen, chief executive officer of Dycom Industries.
At issue are U.S. generally accepted accounting principles in use since the 1930s, known as GAAP, and whether to phase them out in favor of international financial reporting standards, known as IFRS and set by the London-based International Accounting Standards Board.
In theory, switching to international standards would make it easier for investors to compare U.S. businesses to others around the globe, reducing companies' cost of capital. Big multinational firms like Ford and IBM, which use IFRS for their businesses overseas, would no longer have to keep separate books to report in the United States.
The stakes go beyond individual standards. A bigger debate is whether the United States, or any country, should cede control over standard-setting and join a regime with no workable plan yet for uniform global enforcement.
"It's a move away from innovation and progress," said Paul Miller, an accounting professor at the University of Colorado. Though he often disagrees with the U.S. standard-setting board, "it's the best of them all, so why would anyone want to pull all of its teeth?"
U.S. rule-makers have been working since 2002 to bring the country's standards more into line with international rules. Now that the two regimes are closer, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has said it will decide by the end of the year whether to switch to IFRS.
A wholesale switch looks increasingly unlikely. In a staff paper in May, the SEC noted that very few countries adopted IFRS automatically without the right to approve the standards first, sometimes tailoring them to their own needs.
In the European Union, for example, any new or amended IASB standards go through several steps before taking effect there, the SEC noted.
The SEC also has voiced concerns about costs to small companies that have no overseas operations and would benefit little from global rules.
Andy Bishop, chief financial officer at Hallador Energy Co, said he had not heard investors clamoring for IFRS.
"U.S. GAAP is the gold standard of the world," he said. "If it's not broken, why fix it?"
One idea outlined in the SEC's staff paper would be to let the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board review IFRS standards before deciding whether to endorse them. U.S. GAAP would remain in effect, and IFRS would be incorporated into that framework, a process the SEC said could take five to seven years.
"This is a journey and everything doesn't change at once," said Sandra Peters, head of the financial reporting policy group at CFA Institute. "If we can continue to improve accounting standards in incremental steps, then over time we're going to get a better answer."
Some are questioning whether the payoff is worth the effort if all the United States did was to adopt its own version of IFRS.
"The objective was to have one set of global standards all around the world," said Jack Ciesielski, publisher of The Analyst's Accounting Observer.
That now seems unrealistic, he said, with less than 16 percent of the world's markets using a pure version of IFRS as published by IASB.
A number of GAAP standards serve U.S. purposes better than IFRS, Ciesielski said. GAAP, for example, has specialized revenue recognition accounting for casinos, airlines and other industries, while IFRS does not, he said. Rule-makers are revising that standard to align IFRS and GAAP.
Unlike IFRS, GAAP allows "last-in-first-out" inventory reporting, which produces more accurate income statements, he said. With last-in-first-out, or LIFO, companies can assume for cost accounting that their most recently acquired inventory, usually the most expensive, was sold first.
"The real agitators for IFRS are outside the United States," including the IASB itself, Ciesielski said. Some larger firms with non-U.S. operations are in favor of the move, "but you don't hear too many Midwestern agricultural concerns arguing for it," he said.
Others argue that the compromise outlined by the SEC in May may be a good option.
"It's a middle ground, and they're probably looking for the best of both worlds," said Olu Sonola, director of credit policy at Fitch. "The United States can be at the table as an active participant in global standard-setting, and also have the ability to control what becomes part of U.S. GAAP."
Most observers agree the United States should continue eliminating needless differences between its accounting and the rest of the world's.
"Every single country will never interpret things exactly the same, but you hope that at the time you're working together, you're getting closer," said Lisa Filomia-Aktas, a partner at Ernst & Young.
What's becoming apparent, though, is that diversity is not going to disappear.
"At least respect the differences in different markets, different countries, and needs of users in those countries and pay attention to that," Ciesielski said. "I think that actually makes for more effective standard-setting than saying everybody's the same when they're not."