IFRS: Jekyll or Hyde?

U.S. adoption of global accounting standards would be intended to create a level global playing field, but within U.S. borders, its benefits would differ dramatically from company to company.

The primary benefit of the United States adopting International Financial Reporting Standards, touted by accounting standard-setters on both sides of the Atlantic, is that it would make the financial statements of U.S. companies more comparable to those in other countries. In theory, this would help capital from investors and banks flow more smoothly around the world. Another effect is that American filers would be able to use more judgment in preparing financial information — though whether that is a benefit is hotly debated.

But while IFRS arguably might level the playing field for capital, few financial executives see equal opportunity or equal benefits resulting from mandatory adoption in the United States. Indeed, they say, it would provide substantial benefit to some companies and, despite considerable expense, little or none to others. During a roundtable discussion Tuesday at Financial Executives International’s annual Current Issues in Financial Reporting conference in New York City, the dividing lines were well drawn.

The Davey Tree Expert Co., which does business only in the United States and Canada, has never offered its stock to the public. But because most of its more than 7,600 employees own common stock in the company, it is a Securities and Exchange Commission registrant and would be required to use IFRS if it’s mandated, noted controller Nick Sucic.

He said that because of its employee ownership, it is extremely unlikely that Davey Tree would ever list its stock on any national exchange, so the comparability-of-financials argument holds no appeal for Sucic. “We see all costs and zero benefits” of switching to IFRS, he said. In a comment letter, the company has asked the SEC to indefinitely put off mandated adoption.

Sucic also argued against the supposed advantage of being allowed more judgment in financial reporting. “Not everybody believes that U.S. GAAP is rules-based,” he said. “I would argue that GAAP is based on principles that are based on [the Financial Accounting Standards Board's] conceptual framework, and any detailed guidance is both desirable and necessary.” He also held out hope that GAAP will be easier to use now that FASB’s new codification of accounting rules has “swept out a lot of nonauthoritative guidance.” Sucic said he has “a good feeling that U.S. GAAP is the answer.”

But it’s not the answer for Tyco International, the parent of 1,200 legal entities, 900 of them outside the United States. The company has slowed down its IFRS preparation efforts because of the economic downturn and because the SEC has been distracted by the financial crisis during the past year, said John Davidson, the company’s controller and chief accounting officer. And given Tyco’s massive network of information systems, making the switch would be “a tremendous amount of work.” But he’s convinced that the net result of adoption ultimately would be positive, given the ability to prepare financials on the same basis worldwide and to more freely move accounting staff from country to country and business to business.

In theory, some large U.S. companies may be able to switch to IFRS soon, though the SEC has yet to give the go-ahead. But Nick Cyprus, controller and chief accounting officer at General Motors, may not budge until he has no choice. “We’ve got to get a heck of a lot closer to having one converged set of GAAP before we go crazy trying to reconcile the two,” he said. It’s up to the standard-setters on both sides of the Atlantic to “get convergence really on the way before you’re going to see GM spend money on it — because I don’t want to spend it multiple times.”

Further, Cyprus said he doubts, given American litigiousness, whether a principles-based philosophy could work in the United States. Even in the rules-based environment, with mountains of guidance from FASB and regulators, “we have enough debates trying to figure out how to lock and load on a procedure. I’m really skeptical [about] what those debates are going to be like when we get more principles-based.”

Marsha Hunt, corporate controller at power-generation equipment maker Cummins Inc., noted practical concerns as well. Many decision makers “don’t necessarily understand that IFRS can happen to us,” she said. Indeed, the “spigot has been turned off” on new funding associated with anything but existing compliance requirements. “I’m sure I’m not alone among controllers that are a little concerned about the budgetary aspects of this not being properly considered by senior folks at the company.”

Hunt acknowledged that, with the question of mandatory IFRS adoption not yet answered, it’s difficult to argue for expending resources for it now. “But I think we’ve lost some time getting ready compared to where we might have been.”

 

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