Standing on Principles

In a world with more regulation than ever, can the accounting rulebook be thrown away?

As Groucho Marx once said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”

Groucho would enjoy the heated stalemate over principles-based accounting. Four years after the Sarbanes-Oxley Act required the Securities and Exchange Commission to explore the feasibility of developing principles-based accounting standards in lieu of detailed rules, the move to such standards has gone exactly nowhere.

Broadly speaking, principles-based standards would be consistent, concise, and general, requiring CFOs to apply common sense rather than bright-lines. Instead of having, say, numerical thresholds to define when leases must be capitalized, a CFO could use his or her own judgment as to whether a company’s interest was substantial enough to put a lease on the balance sheet. If anything, though, accounting and auditing standards have reached new levels of nitpickiness. “In the current environment, CFOs are second-guessed by auditors, who are then third-guessed by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board [PCAOB], and then fourth- and fifth-guessed by the SEC and the plaintiffs’ bar,” says Colleen Cunningham, president and CEO of Financial Executives International (FEI).

Indeed, the Financial Accounting Standards Board seems to have taken a principled stand in favor of rule-creation. The Board continues to issue detailed rules and staff positions. Auditors have amped up their level of scrutiny, in many cases leading to a tripling of audit fees since 2002. And there is still scant mercy for anyone who breaks the rules: the annual number of restatements doubled to more than 1,000 between 2003 and 2005, thanks to pressure from auditors and the SEC. The agency pursued a record number of enforcement actions in the past three years, while shareholder lawsuits, many involving accounting practices, continued apace, claiming a record $7.6 billion in settlements last year and probably more in 2006.

Yet the dream won’t die. On the contrary, principles are at the heart of FASB’s latest thinking about changes to its basic accounting framework, as reflected in the “preliminary views” the board issued in July with the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) as part of its plan to converge U.S. and international standards. Principles-based accounting has been championed by FASB chairman Robert Herz, SEC commissioner Paul Atkins, SEC deputy chief accountant Scott Taub, and PCAOB member Charlie Niemeier in various speeches over the past six months. And they’re not just talking about editing a few lines in the rulebook.

“We need FASB, the SEC, the PCAOB, preparers, users, auditors, and the legal profession to get together and check their respective agendas at the door in order to collectively think through the obstacles,” says Herz. “And if it turns out some of the obstacles are hardwired into our structure, then maybe we need some legal changes as well,” such as safe harbors that would protect executives and auditors from having their judgments continually challenged. Even the SEC is talking about loosening up. Most at the agency favor the idea of principles instead of rules, says Taub, even knowing that “people will interpret them in different ways and we’ll have to deal with it.”

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