In my previous column, I noted that U.S. CFOs have been wasting time and money in anticipation of an event that will not happen. Specifically, U.S. companies will not be forced to switch from using U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), as we know GAAP today, to using international financial reporting standards (IFRS), as we know IFRS today.
I also noted that most U.S. CFOs are unprepared for several related phenomena that will happen and that, in many cases, are already under way. Topping that list are the profound changes to U.S. GAAP and IFRS that will result from the ongoing efforts of the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) to improve and converge their respective standards. Most of the boards’ work is focused on developing common standards that will be very different from existing standards.
Beyond these few certainties, there are many uncertainties associated with IFRS, especially from a U.S. perspective. Here’s how U.S. CFOs can plan intelligently for the future despite all of the unknowns.
First, financial executives should identify key areas of uncertainty — those areas for which different actual outcomes would have significantly different consequences. It’s also important to identify relationships among areas of uncertainty, including how outcomes might influence each other or be influenced by common factors.
While different companies will reach different conclusions regarding their key areas of IFRS uncertainty, the companies I’ve worked with have most frequently identified the following four key uncertainties:
• the degree to which standard-level convergence between U.S. GAAP and IFRS will be attained;
• the degree of uniformity in other countries’ adoption, interpretation, and application of IFRS;
• the decision of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with regard to the use of future IFRS by public U.S. companies; and
• whether the private-company standard-setting process will remain closely coupled to the public-company standard-setting process in the United States.
What Are the Possibilities?
For planning purposes, there’s a big difference between not knowing what will happen and not knowing what might happen. The CFO who can imagine a reasonably complete and realistic set of possible future scenarios can plan effectively. So let’s examine the possible outcomes for each of the four key areas of uncertainty identified above.
Standard-level convergence between U.S. GAAP and IFRS is very much a matter of degree. Currently, at the standard level, IFRS and U.S. GAAP exhibit a large number of similarities — and a much larger number of differences. The two sets of standards will surely become more similar over time, and eventually they could end up identical to each other. But given the outcomes and pace of the FASB and IASB convergence efforts to date, it’s understandable that many, if not most, of the boards’ constituents have serious doubts that perfect convergence will be achieved anytime soon — if ever.