Today’s CFO is accustomed to managing risk. But few financial executives in the United States accurately perceive or understand the emerging risks that are associated with the global convergence of financial reporting standards (convergence). As a result, CFOs across America are wasting time and money managing imaginary risks while ignoring the real risks associated with convergence in general and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) in particular.
To separate real from imagined risks, let’s start by looking at some of the defining characteristics of the U.S. financial reporting environment. In the United States, as in most of the developed world, private companies outnumber public companies by a ratio of roughly 1,000 to 1. But in the United States—unlike most of the developed world—private companies have no statutory financial reporting obligations. No individual, organization, or governmental agency can unilaterally require private U.S. companies to use a particular set of financial reporting standards.
In practice, private U.S. companies frequently use U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), and there are plenty of good reasons for doing so. But many private companies follow GAAP only up to a point, disclosing deviations in their financial statements. And other private companies use alternatives to GAAP, such as cash-basis accounting, tax-basis accounting, or some “other comprehensive basis of accounting” (OCBOA). So among private U.S. companies, diversity in financial reporting standards is the norm.
The relatively small number of public companies that exist in the United States operate in a very different environment. They are subject to statutory financial reporting obligations as determined by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC has the legal authority to define the financial reporting standards that companies under its jurisdiction must or may use.
Since its inception, the SEC has relied on nongovernmental standard-setting organizations to set financial reporting standards for its regulants. Currently, the SEC looks to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to set the financial reporting standards that the SEC requires public U.S. companies to adhere to. In some cases, the SEC has supplemented or overridden standards set by nongovernmental standard-setters, but for more than 70 years, public companies in the United States have had to use U.S. GAAP as set by the FASB and its predecessors for statutory financial reporting purposes.
IFRS and Convergence
IFRS is a specific, existing set of financial reporting standards that are developed and maintained by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). At the standard level, IFRS and U.S. GAAP exhibit a number of similarities-and a far greater number of differences. There are significant similarities and differences in their conceptual underpinnings as well.
As a nongovernmental organization, the IASB has no authority to compel any country to require or permit the use of IFRS. Nor does the IASB have any authority to compel any individual company to use its standards. In short, only by developing and maintaining a set of standards that at least some countries and companies perceive as being superior to alternatives (such as U.S. GAAP) has the IASB achieved widespread adoption of IFRS throughout the world.