Large companies with multiple units would seem more vulnerable, but those units can often provide a substantial cushion against impairments. “Hopefully, the accounting isn’t influencing how people do acquisitions,” observes Manley.
Goodwill accounting is, however, influencing the way the SEC looks at companies. This may be the most powerful argument for getting outside help. While external valuations do not absolve companies of liability, regulators are likely to view them more favorably.
Moreover, valuation firms offer a structured process and a paper trail that can come in handy if a company’s valuation practices are challenged — as they increasingly are. In February, the SEC released a review of 2002 filings by Fortune 500 companies, noting that goodwill impairment was among the critical disclosures that often “seemed to conflict significantly with generally accepted accounting principles or SEC rules, or to be materially deficient in explanation or clarity.” Among the additional information the SEC demanded were clearer descriptions of accounting policies for measuring impairment, as well as better information on how reporting units are determined and how goodwill is allocated to those units.
Under FAS 142, identifiable intangibles must be recognized separately from goodwill. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they must be amortized. Assets considered to have indefinite lives — powerful brand names such as Coca-Cola, for example — can escape amortization.
But CFOs should think twice before considering that a plus — declaring an intangible to be immortal subjects it to regular impairment testing. “You could be replacing periodic, known amortization with a lot of lumpy, unpredictable impairment,” notes Paul Barnes, managing director of Standard and Poor’s Corporate Value Consulting unit. Paragraph 11 of FAS 142 requires that “no legal, regulatory, contractual, competitive, economic, or other factors” limit the asset’s useful life. And unlike goodwill or intangibles allocated to business units, there’s no way to cushion an indefinite-lived intangible. “The indefinite-lived intangible asset stands naked in its impairment testing, so its impairment could be very visible,” says Barnes.