Has the Crisis Ended the Fair-Value War?

Because of the current fragility of investor confidence, regulators should hold steady on current mark-to-market standards, many feel.

Events have finally overtaken the debate on mark-to-market accounting, leaving previous rivals clinging together to the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s controversial standard on fair-value measurements like shipwreck victims to a raft at sea, the drama unfolding at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s final roundtable on fair value Friday seemed to indicate.

Even the representatives of financial-services institutions, up until now the fiercest opponents of the FASB standard, SFAS 157, seem wary of calling for replacement or suspension of the measure in the face of the disastrously plummeting stock market. Now, many agree, it doesn’t make sense to tamper with the rule and risk losing whatever investor confidence that still remains.

Thus, when the SEC presents a mandated study on SFAS 157 to Congress early next year, a radical change in the current mark-to-market regime seems unlikely to be among the recommendations. After the 12 roundtable panelists — including investor representatives, corporate accounting executives, former regulators, and auditors — had made their opening remarks, SEC chairman Christopher Cox noted that the last of the study’s six topics was a requirement that the commission look into possible alternatives to SFAS 157.

Referring to the panelists’ remarks, Cox said that “going down the line, I didn’t hear anyone say 157 should be replaced,” and he asked them to confirm that impression. Only two of the participants — James Gilleran, former director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, and Kevin Spataro, a vice president for accounting policy and research at Allstate— raised their hands. And while Gilleran thought the FASB measure should be replaced by the International Accounting Standards Board’s fair-value standard, Spataro said he thought 157 should be “amended but not replaced.”

Indeed, Bob Traficanti, the head of accounting policy and a deputy controller at Citigroup who six months ago objected to the standard’s effects on banks during the subprime crisis, fully supports it now. Last May he spoke at a Standard & Poor’s conference provocatively titled, “Is It Time to Write Off Fair Value?”

Citing the standard’s provision that fair-value prices must be based on what a hypothetical “willing buyer” might be asked to pay, Traficanti said then that some of the prices Citigroup had to come up with felt coerced, and he asked FASB to “back-test [the standard] to see how this really worked.”

Friday, however, Traficanti, a former FASB project manager, said both he and Citigroup “support the notion of fair value and 157, and we believe 157 should be left intact.” Indeed, he said, “the last few quarters, there’s an acknowledgement that it works, that it’s auditable.” At the same time, he proposed changes in FASB’s standard 115, covering certain kinds of debt and equity securities, to enable banks to write down debt securities in the same way they record loan losses. That would let the banks designate some debt securities as “available for sale” or “held to maturity” — often a more favorable way of recording fair value than the “exit price” concept of 157 (“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,” according to 157). The bottom line for Traficanti, though, seemed to be: Change 115, but leave 157 alone.

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