As a result of the ongoing efforts of the Financial Accounting Standards Board and its overseas counterpart, the International Accounting Standards Board, U.S. generally accepted accounting principles and international financial reporting standards will both change profoundly and become more similar to each other in the next few years. Those certainties stand in sharp contrast to the uncertainties of whether, how, and when U.S. companies might switch from using U.S. GAAP to using IFRS.
In my previous column, I described three techniques that enable CFOs to plan intelligently for the future despite the many unknowns associated with the use of IFRS in the United States. This time I’ll drill down on the first technique, scenario planning, which involves planning responses to possible future scenarios without focusing on how likely any scenario is to happen.
Scenario planning starts with an assessment of key areas of uncertainty and their possible outcomes. With regard to IFRS, there are four specific areas of uncertainty that vex CFOs in the United States. The first is the degree to which standard-level convergence between U.S. GAAP and IFRS will be attained by FASB and the IASB.
Some observers see standard-level convergence as both inevitable and bad, when, in fact, it is neither.
Folks who believe that FASB and the IASB are intent on converging U.S. GAAP and IFRS for the sake of convergence — without regard to the quality of the resulting standards — simply haven’t been paying attention. The boards’ high-profile project on financial instruments is perhaps the best evidence that the standard setters aren’t willing to agree on just any standards, which means that quality is unlikely to be sacrificed in favor of sameness. It also means the boards might never get anywhere close to having the same standards.
From a scenario-planning perspective, if U.S. GAAP and IFRS do become substantially similar to each other, U.S. companies will be better off than they are today because it will be possible to drive significant costs out of the financial-reporting supply chain on a global basis. Such costs include operating expenditures (e.g., the cost of preparing financial reports), as well as capital costs. And if U.S. GAAP and IFRS don’t become substantially similar to each other, then companies won’t be any worse off.
What possible scenarios do U.S. CFOs need to plan for? If substantial standard-level convergence doesn’t happen, there’s no need for a special plan because that scenario isn’t different from our present situation. But CFOs should plan to take advantage of cost-cutting opportunities to the extent that a significant standard-level convergence comes about, which would be especially beneficial for multinational companies and their subsidiaries.
The second key area of uncertainty is the degree of uniformity in the adoption, interpretation, and application of IFRS by other companies. Critics of IFRS make much of the fact that today the international standards are implemented differently in different countries and even in different companies. This is clearly inconsistent with the desire of the IASB and many other participants in the global financial-reporting supply chain to have one set of standards implemented the same way everywhere.