Through a series of tentative decisions, the Financial Accounting Standards Board recently showed that it wants to require even more fair-value accounting in the merger-and-acquisition process. The proposed changes — which would extend elements of FAS 141, the July 2001 standard that ended most acquirers’ use of pooling — would profoundly alter the way companies express the costs associated with M&A. But while the revisions in general have merger experts cheering, they have raised some concern that corporations may be tempted to spend less on due diligence and merger planning, a result that would be decidedly negative.
The FASB proposals have several features, all aimed at requiring companies to make merger costs more visible, and to place a value on deal-related assets or liabilities at the level that applies at the time they are obligated. One feature would prohibit acquirers from lumping the costs of merger-related legal fees, due diligence, and integration planning into the overall fair value of the deal. Another feature would bar buyers from estimating and recording expected merger-related restructuring costs — such as employee severance payments, relocations, and plant closings — as a one-time merger reserve liability when the deal is struck. The new rules require that both types of costs be expensed as incurred.
The latter move would further close the loophole that has permitted merger-accounting abuses such as those alleged to have been committed by Cendant Corp., among other companies. Part of the Cendant case has involved charges that it used amounts from its huge, one-time merger reserves to create fictitious revenues, thus helping boost earnings in future quarters. (At press time, former Cendant chairman Walter Forbes and former vice chairman E. Kirk Shelton were on trial for alleged abuses of this kind.)
In FASB’s view, this extension of the fair-value standards is “pretty basic,” says the board’s senior project manager, Ronald Bossio. “What we’re basically saying is that you can’t recognize a liability until it’s a liability. If you have the ability to record an asset or liability whenever you want, you can increase or reduce your net income whenever you want,” he says. “We don’t want people doing that.”
Of course, what constitutes an obligating event that creates a liability may be anything but basic. On January 1, 2003, FAS 146 took effect, essentially banning companies from collecting the costs of exit and disposal activities into a large, one-time restructuring reserve, and requiring them to be accounted for as incurred. FAS 146 also describes how to determine when a liability is incurred. But experts say that those rules, which may soon apply to acquisition-related liabilities, left room for a great deal of interpretation.
Bossio concedes that courts dispute a lot of issues every day, and adds, “It’s not always that clear whether or not a liability has been incurred at a certain point in time.”
But what of the unintended consequence of the proposed rule change: that companies will feel pressure to hold down transaction costs associated with the merger, such as due diligence, planning, and legal fees? That worry relates largely to the requirement that acquirers break out such costs as separate and apart from the actual fair-value price of the target company, and record those costs, too, when incurred. Under the current FAS 141 guidelines, some of these costs are still allowed to be accounted for as part of the purchase price.