Happy New Year, Global Accounting

Though it's a little early for cork-popping, IASB chairman David Tweedie talks about what's ahead for global accounting — and offers resolutions geared to holding fast against political pressure in 2009.

As New Year’s resolutions are pondered around the globe, David Tweedie, chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board, is announcing his organization’s resolve to push through its agenda in 2009 — including many joint projects with its American counterpart, the Financial Accounting Standards Board.

For example, next week the IASB will issue an exposure draft on off-balance sheet consolidation focusing on the issue of “control,” noted Tweedie at a Wednesday breakfast meeting sponsored by Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. Tweedie confirmed that the proposed standard won’t be a duplicate of American rule FIN 46(R), which currently is being reworked by FASB to include more stringent criteria for when companies are allowed to transfer ownership of securitized assets and liabilities.

Instead, the new IASB proposal will focus efforts on making the criteria for consolidating assets and liabilities more straightforward. “If you have the power to call the shots, it is yours,” said Tweedie. “We don’t care if you have zero percent equity, it is yours.” Expanding on the control criteria, Tweedie asserted that if a company with an investment in an off-balance sheet vehicle is, for example, making policy decisions about the investment or deciding what to do with troubled assets, it must consolidate the vehicle on its balance sheet.

The proposed standard will also call for preparers and auditors to use judgment regarding vehicles that are not consolidated, since those items must be disclosed in tabular form in the financial statements. Tweedie noted that the related disclosures will likely cover “how much skin” a company has invested in an off-balance sheet vehicle, what the maximum loss could be if “all goes wrong,” and which structured vehicles currently on the balance sheet were not expected to be brought back onto the corporate books after a bank packaged them up and sold them off to various customers.

Tweedie hopes that next year IASB and FASB jointly will tackle the issue of reducing the number of combined impairment tests in U.S. GAAP and IFRS to two or three tests. Such an undertaking will take two or more years, but the chairman hopes to convince his board as well as FASB to put the task on the agenda in January.

In 2009, IASB will take a tougher stance in the face of political pressure, said the chairman. In November, IASB was forced to skip its due process and rush out a fair-value accounting rule that mirrored FASB’s FAS 115. That was because heads of state, including Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, insisted that European banks were at a disadvantage during the credit crunch because they used IFRS. As a result, the European Union threatened to undo international accounting standards related to the reclassification of financial assets unless IASB issued a revised standard.

IASB made the quick change, but Tweedie maintains that his organization and FASB will move in “lock step” going forward, to stop politicians from hijacking the standards setting process by claiming that one region of the world has an advantage over another in terms of accounting rules. Further, Tweedie says that IASB has suggested to its trustees a constitutional amendment to allow a fast-track standard-setting process for emergency situations, such as the current credit crisis. The new fast-track scheme may be available in 2009.

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