Standards Bearer

The chairman of the IASC shares some caustic comments on stock options, corporate boards, and the relative merits of GAAP.

Paul Volcker’s second career is shaping up to be as influential as his first. Until recently, his claim to fame rested primarily on his tenure as Federal Reserve Board chairman from 1979 to 1987, when his tight money policy broke the back of the double-digit inflation that doomed Jimmy Carter’s quest for a second term. But although Volcker’s performance prepared the way for America’s economic turnaround and longest-ever bull market, his star was eventually outshone by that of his successor at the Fed, Alan Greenspan.

Now, as Greenspan’s own star has dimmed as the Internet bubble has burst, the 75-year-old Volcker has reemerged this time as a beacon of integrity in the business world. After leaving the Fed, he served as chairman and CEO of investment firm James D. Wolfensohn Inc. from 1988 to 1996, and became a professor (now emeritus) at Princeton University, his alma mater. Then, in 1996, he was chosen to chair the committee overseeing the restitution by Swiss banks to Holocaust victims. The committee’s investigation ultimately uncovered thousands of accounts that probably belonged to victims of Nazi Germany.

In 2000 Volcker accepted the invitation of Arthur Levitt, then chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to head the Oversight Board of the International Accounting Standards Committee. The board was charged with bringing IAS rules into greater harmony with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles. Levitt gave Volcker the job despite the latter’s blunt comment that it was “arrogant” for the United States to believe that everyone should report in GAAP.

It was in part this reputation for bluntness and independence that landed him his next post. In one of the oddest footnotes to the Enron scandal, Arthur Andersen CEO Joseph Berardino hired Volcker to serve as chairman of a committee to reform Andersen. Such was Volcker’s clout that Andersen agreed to adhere to any recommendations he made. Although this extraordinary initiative was abandoned quickly as Andersen fell apart, Volcker survived with his own reputation not just unscathed but even enhanced. So it was no surprise when SEC chief Harvey Pitt, shortly before his own downfall, called on him to head the new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) mandated for the accounting industry by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (or “the Sarbanes Act,” as Volcker called it during a recent Association for Financial Professionals conference, “since Sarbanes did 90 percent of the work”). Volcker declined Pitt’s offer, citing concerns about the time demands of the job.

Abe de Ramos, managing editor of CFO Asia, recently sat down with Volcker for a far-reaching conversation about how the demands on his time have been influenced by the events of the past two years — and how those events have changed both the climate for corporate governance and the prospects for international accounting standards.

Now that you’ve turned down the PCAOB job, we’re back to square one. Have your sentiments changed from two months ago?

No. I think it’s unfortunate what’s happened. [The first announced candidate was vetoed; the second, William Webster, resigned amid controversy. Charles D. Niemeier now serves as acting head.] I thought it was going quite smoothly and then, for whatever reason, it blew up. There are accusations of lobbying and political pressure.

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