Will Fair Value Fly?

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

Debate is also starting to rage over whether certain items that aren’t currently on corporate balance sheets belong there. For example, do pensions or leases belong on the balance sheet? If so, how should they be counted?

Consider disclosures for leases, the latest item the Financial Accounting Standards Board wants companies to report on their balance sheets instead of relegating to footnotes. Even the industry’s chief lobbying group, the Equipment Leasing Association, agrees that many, if not most, leases should be recorded as liabilities on the balance sheet, because they amount to financing. Yet the ELA argues that an exception should be carved out for small, short-term leases for such items as copiers and PCs, because they represent annual operating expenses rather than capital investments. In that case, asks leasing consultant William Bosco, “is capitalization really what you want? We submit no.”

Can an exception for those deals be made, however, without replicating the type of bright-line test that even Bosco admits leads to unwelcome complexity — as well as the kind of check-the-box approach that adheres to the letter of GAAP but violates its spirit? Theoretically, a principles-based rule might be developed with that in mind. But the Securities and Exchange Commission’s deputy chief accountant, Scott Taub, suggests an alternative: apply the idea of materiality to the question instead. In other words, if the leases are as insignificant as Bosco and the ELA insist, then the items needn’t be reported in the first place, says Taub.

Of course, if anything is in the eye of the beholder these days, it’s materiality. So CFOs who take Taub’s advice may be playing with restatement fire.

Leasing is just the latest of FASB’s controversial proposals for rules for recording assets and liabilities on balance sheets at fair value. The chart below lists other rules that have been enacted or proposed in the past few years that have yielded untoward consequences — or threaten to do so — in at least some cases. As such, the box may serve as a scorecard for what is shaping up to be an ongoing battle over “improvements” to GAAP. — R.F.

Recent FASB Pronouncements That Embrace Fair Value
Item FAS Issue Year Potential Impact
Derivatives 133 Hedging 1999 More earnings volatility
Stock options 123R Expensing 2005 Higher compensation costs
Hybrid financial instruments 155 Embedded derivatives 2006 Less earnings volatility
Securitization 156 Servicing rights 2006 More earnings volatility
Pensions NA Liabilities NA Lower shareholders’ equity
Leases NA Financing NA Higher leverage
Sources: The Analyst’s Accounting Observer, FASB

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