Will Fair Value Fly?

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

Herz and other fair-value proponents disagree, noting that the income accrues to the benefit of the shareholders, not to bondholders. “It’s not at all counterintuitive,” asserts Rebecca McEnally, director for capital-markets policy of the CFA Institute Centre for Financial Market Integrity, citing the fact that the item is classified under GAAP as “income from forgiveness of indebtedness.” But Ciesielski says investors are unlikely to understand that, and that fair value, in this case at least, may not produce useful results.

Resolving the Issues

Even some of FASB’s critics agree, however, that the current system needs improvement, and that fair value can help provide it. “Fair value in general is more relevant than historical cost and can lead to reduced complexity and greater transparency,” Barge admits, though he has noted that the use of fair value may also lead to “soft” results that “you can’t audit.”

For much the same reason, Colleen Cunningham, president and CEO of Financial Executives International (FEI), expressed concern in testimony before Congress last March that “overly theoretical and complex standards can result in financial reporting of questionable accuracy and can create a significant cost burden, with little benefit to investors.” In an interview, she explains that her biggest concern is that FASB is pushing ahead with fair-value-based rules without sufficient input from preparers. “Let’s resolve the issues” before proceeding, she insists.

Herz concedes that numerous issues surrounding fair value need to be addressed. But important users of financial statements are pressing him to move forward on fair value without delay. As a comment letter that the CFA Institute sent to FASB put it: “All financial decision-making should be based on fair value, the only relevant measurement for assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses.”

Meanwhile, Herz isn’t waiting for the conceptual framework to be completed before enacting new rules that embrace fair value. “In the end, we’re not going to get everybody agreeing,” Herz says. “So we have to make decisions” despite lingering disagreement.

Ironically, one fair-value-based proposal that FASB issued recently may have created an artful means of defusing opposition. The Board’s proposal for financial instruments gives preparers of financial reports the choice of using historical cost or fair value in recording the instruments on their balance sheets. That worries some people, who say giving companies a choice of methods will make it harder to compare their results, even when they’re in the same industry.

By providing such an option, however, Herz may have, unwittingly or not, come up with an effective means of short-circuiting opponents’ attacks. What, after all, can be their gripe about the use of fair value if FASB lets them opt out of such rules? “I think this actually might be a good way for FASB to get things done,” says Ciesielski. “If they were going to mandate that all use it, there’d be stalling forever. Offering companies the option will give those that look good under it an incentive to do it — and the others might have to get on the stick.”

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