New World Order

IASB chairman Sir David Tweedie says global accounting standards are within reach.

Sir David Tweedie is on a quest. The 59-year-old chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) is overseeing the development of a single set of international accounting standards for the European Union (EU) by March and intends to converge those standards with U.S. rules.

Can it be done that quickly? It must be, according to Sir David. The engine of capital formation and investment has been stalled long enough by the anachronism of 26 separate European accounting methods, with another in America. Developing a single international system is “not about arcane bookkeeping matters,” says the former head of the UK’s accounting standards board. “It’s really about something much bigger.” Indeed, what the IASB is really targeting when it designs an accounting system for the world “is inward investment, growth, employment, and world trade,” he says.

The accounting scandals infecting both the New and Old Worlds give convergence more urgency. While Sir David won’t blame the Enron and Parmalat fiascos on an absence of international standards, he believes that some frauds would be much harder to pull off. Having a set of standards based on principles, rather than mere rules, might dissuade executives from simply “checking the boxes and not looking at the whole picture.”

Sir David’s quest, however, has not been uniformly well received. There’s been much displeasure among European banks and the French government over the new rules for financial instruments. And the implications for expensing stock options have already met opposition in the States. Meanwhile, critics everywhere charge that without a European enforcement agency on the scale of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the rules will lack teeth. Sir David says that a plan to address enforcement is in the works.

He firmly believes that now is the time for international standards. In January, during a break at an IASB meeting in London, he sat down with CFO deputy editor Lori Calabro and CFO Asia editor Tom Leander to discuss the board’s hopes and his vision of a “three-legged-stool” arrangement—rules combined with good corporate governnace and auditing standards—for deterring abuses.

The IASB promised a workable set of standards by March, and the European Commission mandated that all European companies switch to international standards by 2005. How has the process evolved?

When we started in the summer of 2001, we inherited 34 standards from our predecessor body [the International Accounting Standards Committee]. Now, of those inherited standards, 30 had been an attempt to get together with the International Organization of Securities Commissions [IOSCO] to produce standards of appropriate quality, so that users could list on any stock exchange worldwide. But 14 of the standards were heavily criticized. Then, only about a month or two after we began, the EU announced this 2005 deadline. So we had a choice. We knew we had to fix these [inherited] standards, if international standards were going to be acceptable to New York and the SEC. But we also had the 2005 deadline. So should we just gradually change them, meaning that anyone coming on board would have to change twice in a matter of a year or two? Or should we have a real blitz on these standards, and really change them? That’s what we did. We ended up publishing in November, and we actually changed 17 of the 34—pretty fast for a standard setter in two and a half years.

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