No New Accounting Rules for Three Years?

Accounting rulemakers are starting to talk about a moratorium on new accounting rules. But the proposal comes with one giant catch: you have to adopt IFRS first.

Although the Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to suggest a date by which U.S. companies might be required to adopt International Financial Reporting Standards, the actual mechanics of such a massive switch are beginning to dominate accounting discussions. IFRS adoption was a recurring theme at a recent public forum held by the Financial Accounting Standards Board — and with that discussion came mention of a surprising idea.

“If we set a date for adopting [IFRS], we need a minimum of a year, if not two years, of no new accounting systems,” said FASB member George Batavick. “Companies need a break.”

Batavick, who said he is a “strong believer in moratoriums before and after” a future switch to IFRS, discussed the concept in response to a question from the audience at a mid-year update webcast. He also said there should be “at least a one-year quiet period” during which no interpretive guidance would be issued.

In addition to needing time to manage such a massive changeover, said Batavick, companies “also need a period to have their [IT] systems run two [accounting] systems.” That’s a reference to the fact that any changeover to IFRS will probably require U.S. companies to manage two sets of books for at least two years.

At this early stage, when adoption of IFRS is still more speculation than reality, it is far from clear whether most corporate enterprise-resource-planning systems have that capability, or, perhaps more accurately, how much effort would be required to develop it. A recent KPMG webcast on the implications of IFRS adoption for tax purposes said the development of dual systems was one of the major preparatory steps companies would have to take.

There is, of course, precedent for such moratoriums — the International Accounting Standards Board is in the midst of one that expires in January 2009 that is intended “to provide a period of relative stability,” says IASB spokesman Mark Byatt. Although IASB continues to work on and even issue new standards during this period, the effective dates are postponed until 2009.

The current moratorium was announced in 2006 and is aimed at easing accounting compliance for European companies that converted to IFRS in 2005. Although European companies had three years to convert from their local generally accepted accounting principles to IFRS, the phase-in period coincided with IASB efforts to finalize many of its rules, which created some confusion and effectively shortened the actual amount of time many European companies had to prepare for the change.

More recently, there also has to be a strong push for IASB and FASB to accelerate several large projects that are part of the accounting standards convergence agreement between the two boards. Those projects, including lease accounting, financial statement presentation, and revenue recognition, have been dramatically slimmed down in hopes of completing them by 2011.

By wiping such large projects off their agenda, rulemakers may effectively produce another post-adoption moratorium for countries that have set 2011 as their adoption deadline, providing them with a period of relative stability. That said, those countries may need it, as it is equally likely that a rush to issue such major accounting rules just before their deadline could cause a repeat of the confusion experienced in Europe. “What we didn’t want to do was have a situation where people had to effectively make a lot of big changes twice,” explains IASB’s Byatt.

Countries that have formally announced 2011 as their ideal effective date include Canada, Korea, Japan, and India. If, as most observers say, the United States is most likely to follow in 2013, a post-2009 moratorium could be good news for U.S. companies. Unlike their peers around the world, they would be the first to roll out IFRS during a moratorium rather than receiving one after the fact.

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