What’s Your ARS Worth?

A look at the various ways companies are dealing with the financial joke that is auction-rate securities.

Could there possibly be a stranger financial reporting conundrum than auction-rate securities?

A year ago, they were simple: Most companies recorded auction-rate securities as cash equivalents on their balance sheets. End of story.

Today, the same securities are still AAA-rated and financially-sound, but can’t be sold at any price. In some cases, however, companies do have buyers in the form of the brokers who sold them and who, under heavy pressure from regulators, have agreed to repurchase the securities at face value — but not immediately.

Earlier this week, Bank of America became the latest financial institution to agree — under heavy pressure from regulators — to buy back auction rate securities. Citigroup, UBS, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Merrill Lynch have also agreed to settlements with regulators to repurchase more than $50 billion worth of the securities.

But those settlements were aimed first at helping retail investors, followed by institutional investors. Not all settlements guaranteed that corporate treasuries could return ARS to their brokers, and many of those that did give the brokers and banks in question a year or more before they must buy back illiquid ARS.

Alas, financial reporting rules are not so forgiving. Even before regulators stepped in, individual companies, most notably Bristol-Myers Squibb, were forced into the unusual step of writing down the cash line on their financial reports as a result of ARS illiquidity.

The auction-rate security crisis also coincided with the roll-out of FAS 157, a new rule defining how fair-value measurements should be made. The rule defined three-tiers of fair-value measurements–those based on quoted or actual prices, those based on significant observable inputs, and those based, in the curious language of accounting, on unobservable information. These days, ARS fall into the last category.

To look at how companies are handling the reporting of auction-rate securities, CFO.com took a random look at financial filings released in the last 48 hours that mentioned ARS, and chose five different companies: Advanced Analogic Technologies, Sigma Designs, The L.S. Starrett Company, Magma Design Automation, and Buckle Inc. All five handled the ARS issue slightly differently, but they also included detailed explanations of their thinking in terms of both classification and valuation.

All but one of the filings examined by CFO.com were quarterly or annual reports; the fifth was a stock option repricing. Three of the five companies (Sigma, L.S. Starrett, and Magma), mentioned that their ARS were AAA-rated. Likewise, three of the five (Advanced Analogic, Sigma, and L.S. Starrett) mentioned the form of debt underlying the ARS — student loans backed by either state- or federal-government guarantees.

Of the five companies, three — Sigma, L.S. Starrett, and Magma — said specifically that their banks or brokers had agreed to repurchase ARS, though only one, L.S. Starrett, said that would happen this year.

Santa Clara, California-based Advanced Analogic Technologies, whose most recent discussion of ARS appeared in its filing of an offer to exchange stock options, had $2.6 million in ARS as of June 30, collateralized largely with Federal Family Education Loan Program student loans. The company first reported changes to its ARS accounting in the first quarter of the year, moving its ARS investments from Level 1 to Level 3 under FAS 157 after February 2008, when ARS auctions began failing.

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