In public, bankers have been blaming themselves for their troubles. Behind the scenes, they have been taking aim at someone else: the accounting standard-setters. Their rules, moan the banks, have forced them to report enormous losses, and it’s just not fair. These rules say they must value some assets at the price a third party would pay, not the price managers and regulators would like them to fetch. Unfortunately, banks’ lobbying now seems to be working. The details may be arcane, but the independence of standard-setters, essential to the proper functioning of capital markets, is being compromised. And, unless banks carry toxic assets at prices that attract buyers, reviving the banking system will be difficult.
On April 2nd, after a bruising encounter with Congress, America’s Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) rushed through rule changes. These gave banks more freedom to use models to value illiquid assets and more flexibility in recognising losses on long-term assets in their income statements. Bob Herz, the FASB’s chairman, decried those who “impugn our motives”. Yet bank shares rose and the changes enhance what one lobbying group politely calls “the use of judgment by management”.
European ministers instantly demanded that the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) do likewise. The IASB says it does not want to be “piecemeal”, but the pressure to fold when it completes its overhaul of rules later this year is strong. On April 1st Charlie McCreevy, a European commissioner, warned the IASB that it did “not live in a political vacuum” but “in the real world” and that Europe could yet develop different rules.
It was banks that were on the wrong planet, with accounts that vastly overvalued assets. Today they argue that market prices overstate losses, because they largely reflect the temporary illiquidity of markets, not the likely extent of bad debts. The truth will not be known for years. But banks’ shares trade below their book value, suggesting that investors are sceptical. And dead markets partly reflect the paralysis of banks which will not sell assets for fear of booking losses, yet are reluctant to buy all those supposed bargains.
To get the system working again, losses must be recognised and dealt with. Japan’s procrastination prolonged its crisis. America’s new plan to buy up toxic assets will not work unless banks mark assets to levels which buyers find attractive. Successful markets require independent and even combative standard-setters. The FASB and IASB have been exactly that, cleaning up rules on stock options and pensions, for example, against hostility from special interests. But by appeasing critics now they are inviting pressure to make more concessions.
To reveal, but not to regulate
Standard-setters should defuse the argument by making clear that their job is not to regulate banks but to force them to reveal information. The banks, their capital-adequacy regulators and politicians seem to dream of a single, grown-up version of the truth, which enhances financial stability. Investors and accountants, however, think all valuations are subjective, doubt managers’ motives and judge that market prices are the least-bad option. They are right. A bank’s solvency is a matter of judgment for its regulators and for investors, not whatever a piece of paper signed by its auditors says it is. Accounts can inform that decision, but not make it.
Banks’ regulators have to take responsibility. If they want to remove the mechanical link between drops in market prices and capital shortfalls at banks, they should take the accounts that standard-setters create for investors and adjust them when they calculate capital. They already do this to some degree. But the banks’ campaign to change the rules is making inevitable a split between two sets of accounts, one for regulators and another for investors. The FASB and IASB can help regulators to create whatever balance-sheet they want. But in doing so they must not compromise their duty to investors.