The accounting change for reporting the value of banks’ loans, which got the New York Times all hot and bothered yesterday morning, really amounts to a hill of beans, once you take a closer look at it.
In fact, the description in the article left me scratching my head on a couple of counts. How, for example, do banks write down the value of non-performing loans, as accounting rules require them to do, if they don’t mark them to market?
And what’s up with the tortuous explanation of how the Financial Accounting Standards Board decided to have banks mark to market the loans for purposes of the balance sheet but not for earnings? While I’m as big a fan as anyone of Jack T. Ciesielski, the accounting expert who publishes the investment newsletter, the Analyst’s Accounting Observer, his quote calling the decision a “smorgasboard” doesn’t really mean anything without some sort of context.
That context is pretty easy to provide, at least in the eyes of Charles Mulford, a Georgia Tech accounting professor and advisor to CFOZone.
As Mulford sees it, FASB simply is bringing information that’s already contained in the footnotes onto the balance sheet, specifically into the line item on that statement known as “other comprehensive income.” And this quite naturally has no impact on the earnings bank report on their income statements.
Currently, banks’ balance sheets carry loans at historical cost, less an estimate of the portion that is uncollectible, with fair value information in the notes, the accounting professor explains. The proposal would move the fair value information to the balance sheet by reconciling the cost of the loan with its fair value, he continues. But Mulford adds that there would be no change in the income statement, since that already includes any loan impairments. Instead, adjustments to fair value would be accounted for as a component of other comprehensive income, which is reported on the balance sheet.
“I view it more of a change in presentation than a change in accounting,” says Mulford.
In other words, investors who pay attention already understand this, so any complaints on the parts of banks should be seen as just an attempt to continue to fool those that don’t.