A New Vision for Accounting

Robert Herz and FASB are preparing a radical new format for financial statements.

Last summer, McCormick & Co. controller Ken Kelly sliced and diced his financial statements in ways he had never before imagined. For starters, he split the income statement for the $2.7 billion international spice-and-food company into the three categories of the cash-flow statement: operating, financing, and investing. He extracted discontinued operations and income taxes and placed them in separate categories, instead of peppering them throughout the other results. He created a new form to distinguish which changes in income were due to fair value and which to cash. One traditional ingredient, meanwhile, was conspicuous by its absence: net income.

Kelly wasn’t just indulging a whim. Ahead of a public release of a draft of the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new format for financial statements in the second quarter of 2008, the McCormick controller was trying out the financial statements of the future, a radical departure from current conventions. FASB’s so-called financial statement presentation project is ostensibly concerned only with the form, or the “face,” of financial statements, but it’s quickly becoming clear that it will change and expand their content as well. “This is a complete redefinition of the financial statements as we know them,” says John Hepp, a former FASB project manager and now senior manager at Grant Thornton.

Some of the major changes under discussion: reconfiguring the balance sheet and the income statement to follow the three categories of the cash-flow statement, requiring companies to report cash flows with the little-used direct method; and introducing a new reconciliation schedule that would highlight fair-value changes. Companies will also likely have to report more about their segments, possibly down to the same level of detail as they currently report for the consolidated statements. Meanwhile, net income is slated to disappear completely from GAAP financial statements, with no obvious replacement for such commonly used metrics as earnings per share.

FASB, working with the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and accounting standards boards in the United Kingdom and Japan, continues to work out the precise details of the new financial statements. “We are trying to set the stage for what financial statements will look like across the globe for decades to come,” says FASB chairman Robert Herz. (Examples of the proposed new financial statements can be viewed at FASB’s Website.) If the standard-setters stay their course, CFOs and controllers at every publicly traded company in the world could be following Kelly’s lead as soon as 2010.

It’s too early to predict with confidence which changes will ultimately stick. But the mock-up exercise has made Kelly wary. He considers the direct cash-flow statement and reconciliation schedule among the “worst aspects” of the forthcoming proposal, and expects they would require “draconian exercises” from his finance staff, he says. And he questions what would result from the additional details: “If all of a sudden your income statement has 125 lines instead of 25, is that presentation more clarifying, or more confusing?”

Other financial executives share Kelly’s skepticism. In a December CFO survey of more than 200 finance executives, only 17 percent said the changes would offer any benefits to their companies or investors (see “Keep the Bottom Line” at the end of this article). Even some who endorsed the basic aim of the project and like the idea of standardizing categories across the three major financial statements were only cautiously optimistic. “It may be OK, or it may be excessive.” says David Rickard, CFO of CVS/Caremark. “The devil will be in the details.”

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