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January 31, 2023

Is Accounting Rule Anarchy a Good Idea?

John Carney comments on Sheila Bair’s bellyaching about mark-to-market today by simply wondering why there has to be a debate at all. That is, couldn’t accounting rules just be served up – presumably buffet style – and the banks would choose which treatment they like best and then regulators could judge their health based on their choices:

Here’s what I don’t get: why do we need one set of accounting standards at all? To put it differently, why should banking regulators feel obliged to judge the safety and soundness of financial institutions according to any measure that they do not like? If Bair doesn’t think fair value is appropriate to the banking sector, can’t she just ignore fair value when judging whether banks satisfy regulatory requirements?


It’s an interesting question. Why does the FDIC care what fair value says when determining bank health? Analysts use and refer to non-GAAP data all the time, so what difference does it make if regulators rationalize their analysis on similar non-GAAP measures?

After explaining that, despite the complaints of a certain billionaire (among others), transparency is actually a good thing, Carney floats an idea:

My truly radical proposal is that we should probably do away with this argument altogether by allowing banks—and every other company for that matter—to choose which accounting standards they want to use. If amortized cost is truly a better standard, banks using that will surely be rewarded by higher stock prices and cheaper access to credit. On the other hand, if fair value is appropriate, the market will reward that. Why not let banks choose and bear the costs of their choice?

While we’re with John in spirit (especially for the banks, they run things after all), the BSDs in the accounting will never let this fly. The idea of letting individual companies determine what accounting rules to follow is enough to cause Big 4 partners to set themselves on fire in the middle of Union Square in protest.

However, if you’ve got thoughts on we could put this thing in motion, it might be kind of fun to see how it works out.

John Carney comments on Sheila Bair’s bellyaching about mark-to-market today by simply wondering why there has to be a debate at all. That is, couldn’t accounting rules just be served up – presumably buffet style – and the banks would choose which treatment they like best and then regulators could judge their health based on their choices:

Here’s what I don’t get: why do we need one set of accounting standards at all? To put it differently, why should banking regulators feel obliged to judge the safety and soundness of financial institutions according to any measure that they do not like? If Bair doesn’t think fair value is appropriate to the banking sector, can’t she just ignore fair value when judging whether banks satisfy regulatory requirements?


It’s an interesting question. Why does the FDIC care what fair value says when determining bank health? Analysts use and refer to non-GAAP data all the time, so what difference does it make if regulators rationalize their analysis on similar non-GAAP measures?

After explaining that, despite the complaints of a certain billionaire (among others), transparency is actually a good thing, Carney floats an idea:

My truly radical proposal is that we should probably do away with this argument altogether by allowing banks—and every other company for that matter—to choose which accounting standards they want to use. If amortized cost is truly a better standard, banks using that will surely be rewarded by higher stock prices and cheaper access to credit. On the other hand, if fair value is appropriate, the market will reward that. Why not let banks choose and bear the costs of their choice?

While we’re with John in spirit (especially for the banks, they run things after all), the BSDs in the accounting will never let this fly. The idea of letting individual companies determine what accounting rules to follow is enough to cause Big 4 partners to set themselves on fire in the middle of Union Square in protest.

However, if you’ve got thoughts on we could put this thing in motion, it might be kind of fun to see how it works out.

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