Strange Bedfellows: Fair Value and the Bailout Plan

The presence of the government in the market could be just another piece of information to assess.

Contrary to many incorrect media reports, the guidance on fair-value accounting issued on Tuesday by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Accounting Standards Board wasn’t intended as another nail in the coffin of fair-value accounting.

Rather than responding to the growing cries by banks and legislators to suspend mark-to-market reporting, FASB and the SEC were merely clarifying their previously held position that FAS 157, the now controversial fair-value disclosure standard, should be applied with an eye toward broad principles, rather than rigid rules, at least one valuation expert suggests.

It was that rigid interpretation—and not the fair-value standard itself—that may have helped intensify the financial crisis by moving financial CFOs and auditors to price distressed assets much lower than they needed to, David Larsen, a managing director with Duff and Phelps, told CFO.com.

Because of the lowered valuation of their assets, banks might have felt impelled to tighten lending, the theory goes. To be sure, the language of 157 may have tilted them toward lower asset pricing, according to the valuation expert.

The standard, titled Fair Value Measurement, defines fair value as “the price that would be received to sell an asset or paid to transfer a liability in an orderly transaction between market participants at the measurement date.” That price is also referred to as an “exit price.” In the current market for distressed mortgage assets, as spreads have widened between the asking and bidding prices, “the exit-market concept of 157 inherently pushes one toward the bid price because that’s what the market is offering,” Larsen says.

Thus, he adds, some issuers have placed too much emphasis on the price at which they bought or sold their last securities as markets were freezing up, rather than also incorporating the instrument’s cash flows and risk portfolios in the valuation. Perhaps responding to that issue, the SEC and FASB declared in their guidance that, while transactions in inactive markets “should be considered in management’s estimate of fair value,” such deals aren’t “determinative.”

Earlier in the guidance release, the standard-setters state that “when an active market for a security does not exist, the use of management estimates that incorporate current market participant expectations of future cash flows, and include appropriate risk premiums, is acceptable.” They add: “The determination of fair value often requires significant judgment.”

Such a principles-based approach to compliance was the intent of the standards-setters even before Tuesday’s guidance, contends Larsen, who is a member of FASB’s Valuation Resource Group.

Months before the guidance, both FASB and participants at a summer SEC roundtable indicated that “just because there’s been a single transaction in an illiquid market, you don’t necessarily have to record that as your fair value,” he said. “But because that [interpretation is] out there, many people have latched onto that.”

In fact, Larsen noted, accounting literature actually provides issuers with the flexibility to look at the asset’s underlying cash flows and its true risks, as well as the last transaction price: “Whereas the bid may be 20 and the ask may be 90, maybe a more fair representation [of fair value] may be something like 60.”

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