The Fair-Value Deadbeat Debate Returns

On hiatus while other fair-value questions were debated, the hotly-contested issue of why companies can book a gain when their credit rating sinks has returned to center stage.

A new discussion paper released last week by the staff of the International Accounting Standards Board has revived an old, but still fiery fair-value controversy.

At issue: the role of credit risk in measuring the fair value of a liability. According to the paper’s opening statement: the topic has “arguably … generated more comment and controversy than any other aspect of fair value measurement.”

At the heated core of the dispute is the question of why accounting rules allow companies to book a gain when their credit rating actually sinks. The accounting convention, which opponents contend is counterintuitive if not ridiculous, has prompted “a visceral response to an intellectual issue,” says Wayne Upton, the IASB project principal who authored the discussion paper.

For all the hubbub around it, the rule is rather simple: When a company chooses to use the fair value method of accounting, it must mark its liabilities as well as its assets to market. As a company’s credit rating goes down, so does the price of its debt, which therefore must be re-measured by marking the liability to market. The difference between the debt’s carrying value and its so-called fair value is then recorded as a debit to liabilities, and a credit to income.

Consider an oversimplified example to clarify the accounting treatment. A company records a $100 liability for a bond it has issued. Overnight, the company’s credit rating drops from A to BB. That drop causes the price of the bond trading in the market to decrease from $100 to $90. The $10 difference, under current accounting rules, is recorded as a $10 debit to liabilities on the balance sheet and a $10 credit to income on the income statement.

As the company’s credit rating and the price of the bond rise — to, say, $100 again — the accounting is reversed. Income takes a $10 hit, while the liability account is credited.

That accounting oddity has been a lingering problem since 2000, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board introduced Concept Statement 7, which includes a general theory on credit standing and measuring liabilities. The notion was hotly debated again in 2005, when IASB revised IAS 39, its measurement rule for financial instruments and in 2006 when FASB issued FAS 157, its fair-value measurement standard.

Addison Everett, the practice leader for global capital markets at PricewaterhouseCoopers, notes that the debate cooled down over the last 18 months as the liquidity crisis bubbled up. The crisis spotlighted more politically charged fair-value topics such as asset valuation in illiquid markets, classification of financial assets, asset impairment, and financial disclosures, he says.

But the credit risk quandary is back, demanding the attention of investors, regulators, and lawmakers who were carefully watching ailing financial institutions as they posted their first-quarter earnings results. As financial results were disclosed this year, it became clear that IAS 39 and FAS 157 were being used to boost income as banks and insurance companies became less creditworthy. For example, in the first quarter, Citigroup benefited from its credit rating downgrade by posting a $30 million gain on its own bond debt.

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