Will Fair Value Fly?

Fair-value accounting could change the very basis of corporate finance.

Editor’s Note:

On Friday, The Financial Accounting Standards Board issued additional guidance to help corporations and accounting firms measure assets and liabilities using the fair value method of accounting. The new rule, known as FAS No. 157, affects over 40 existing accounting standards—including those used to value stock options (FAS 123) and derivatives (FAS 133)—but does not expand the use of fair value to any new circumstances, said FASB in a press statement.

Two weeks ago, deputy editor Ron Fink published a story in CFO magazine that anticipated the issuance of FAS 157, provided practical analysis of the subject, and included a discussion of whether standards, and a standards-setting body, is now needed in the asset valuation industry. Here’s the full text of that story.

Much has changed in financial reporting since Andrew Fastow and Scott Sullivan, the finance chiefs of Enron and WorldCom, respectively, brought disgrace upon themselves, their employers, and, to a degree, their profession. Regulators and investors have pressed companies to be more open and forthcoming about their results — and companies have responded. According to a new CFO magazine survey, 82 percent of public-company finance executives disclose more information in their financial statements today then they did three years ago. But that positive finding won’t quell calls for further accounting reform.

The U.S. reporting system “faces a number of important and difficult challenges,” Robert Herz, chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, told the annual conference of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Washington, D.C., last December. Chief among those, said Herz, is “the need to reduce complexity and improve the transparency and overall usefulness” of information reported to investors.

Critics contend that generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) remain seriously flawed, even as companies have beefed up internal controls to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. “We’ve done very little but play defense for the last five to six years,” charges J. Michael Cook, chairman and CEO emeritus of Deloitte & Touche LLP. “It’s time to play offense.”

Cook, a respected elder statesman in the accounting community, goes so far as to pronounce financial statements almost completely irrelevant to financial analysis as currently conducted. “The analyst community does workarounds based on numbers that have very little to do with the financial statements,” says Cook. “Net income is a virtually useless number.”

How can financial statements become more relevant and useful? Many reformers, including Herz, believe that fair-value accounting must be part of the answer. In this approach, which FASB increasingly favors, assets and liabilities are marked to market rather than recorded on balance sheets at historical cost. Fair-value accounting, say its advocates, would give users of financial statements a far clearer picture of the economic state of a company.

“I know what an asset is. I can see one, I can touch one, or I can see representations of one. I also know what liabilities are,” says Thomas Linsmeier, a Michigan State University accounting professor who joined FASB in June. On the other hand, “I believe that revenues, expenses, gains, and losses are accounting constructs,” he adds. “I can’t say that I see a revenue going down the street. And so for me to have an accounting model that captures economic reality, I think the starting point has to be assets and liabilities.”

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