Standing on Principles

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

Standards Deviation

Why lawmakers are so set on principles and what exactly those principles would look like is all a bit hazy right now. “Post-Enron, the perception was that people were engineering around the accounting rules. We looked around the world and saw that England had principles-based accounting and they didn’t have scandals there, so we decided this was the way to go,” recounts CVS Corp. CFO David Rickard, a Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Committee (FASAC) member.

But Rickard considers the approach “naive.” His firsthand experience with principles-based accounting, as a group controller for London-based Grand Metropolitan from 1991 to 1997, left him unimpressed. “We had accounting rules we could drive trucks through,” he says.

Would such a change be worth the trouble? A recent study that compared the accrual quality of Canadian companies reporting under a relatively principles-based GAAP to that of U.S. companies reporting by the rules suggests that there may be no effective difference between the two systems. The authors, Queen’s University (Ontario) professors Daniel B. Thornton and Erin Webster, found some evidence that the Canadian approach yields better results, but conclude that “stronger U.S. oversight and greater litigation risk” compensate for any differences.

U.S. GAAP is built on principles; they just happen to be buried under hundreds of rules. The SEC, in its 2003 report on principles-based accounting, labeled some standards as being either “rules” or “principles.” (No surprise to CFOs, FAS 133, stock-option accounting, and lease accounting fall in the former category, while FAS 141 and 142 were illustrative of the latter.) The difference: principles offer only “a modicum” of implementation guidance and few scope exceptions or bright-lines.

For FASB, the move to principles-based accounting is part of a larger effort to organize the existing body of accounting literature, and to eliminate internal inconsistencies. “Right now, we have a pretty good conceptual framework, but the standards have often deviated from the concepts,” says Herz. He envisions “a common framework” with the IASB, where “you take the concepts,” such as how assets and liabilities should be measured, and “from those you draw key principles” for specific areas of accounting, like pensions and business combinations. In fact, that framework as it now stands would change corporate accounting’s most elemental principle, that income essentially reflects the difference between revenues and expenses. Instead, income would depend more on changes in the value of assets and liabilities (see “Will Fair Value Fly?“).

For its part, the SEC has also made clear that it does not envisage an entirely free-form world. “Clearly, the standard setters should provide some implementation guidance as a part of a newly issued standard,” its 2003 report states.

The catch is that drawing a line between rules and principles is easier said than done. Principles need to be coupled with implementation guidance, which is more of an art than a science, says Ben Neuhausen, national director of accounting for BDO Seidman. That ambiguity may explain why finance executives are so divided on support for this concept. Forty-seven percent of the executives surveyed by CFO say they are in favor of a shift to principles, another 25 percent are unsure of its merits, and 17 percent are unfamiliar with the whole idea. Only 10 percent oppose it outright, largely out of concern that it would be too difficult to determine which judgments would pass muster.

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