“We are not moving away from mark-to-market accounting,” Mr. Blankfein said Tuesday. “The more we work with it and live with it the more I wish that everybody else would act in a corresponding way.”
You have your orders.
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.
The Blackstone Group co-founder, chairman and CEO is in Seoul hobnobbing with various other titans of industry, finance and politics for the G-20 Business Summit and as you might expect, things can get a little drab.
Dark suits, heavy lunches, important people trying to one-up each other’s stories and so on and so forth can really get tiresome so in order to “keep people awake,” SS brought up a topic near and dear to his heart:
[I]n the United States, we eliminated mark-to-market accounting in 1937, and why did we do that? We completely bankrupted our system before, and for some reason, somebody who liked something called transparency decided to have mark-to-market accounting come back, around the turn of the last century. So it in no way surprises me that we had a catastrophic collapse as a result of implementing mark-to-market accounting.
Not exactly sure who “somebody” is but one guy has retired and another is on his way out, so this could be Schwarzman’s reminder to the outgoing MTM cheerleaders that he hasn’t changed his stance that the whole thing just sucks.
Banks hate the FASB. This is understood. They’re especially bent out of shape these days because the Board recently put out its latest fair value proposal that requires them to carry their loans at fair value. Bob Herz knew that this was going to cause hella-belly aching although he may not have predicted the virtual assault that was coming.
Banking lobbyists have launched an e- mail and Web campaign to mobilize investors against a proposed expansion of fair-value accounting rules that may force banks such as Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. to write down billions of dollars of assets.
The American Bankers Association opposes the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s plan to apply fair-value rules to all financial instruments, including loans, rather than just to securities. The group says the rule could make strong banks appear undercapitalized.
The association’s website, noting that FASB’s stated mission is to serve investors, provides a sample letter for people writing to the board and suggests they focus on why the proposal isn’t “useful for investors.”
As you can see, the banks are bringing out the big guns, although this not unfamiliar territory for the FASB. Lynn Turner, a Senior Advisor and Managing Director at LECG and former Chief Accountant SEC wrote in an email to GC, “This campaign is very similar to the efforts of the technology companies campaign against the FASB in 1993-95 to prevent rules that would have required those companies to expense the value of their stock options, something that ultimately led to investor losses and problems in the markets.”
The FASB prevailed in that particular battle but the ABA is wise to their ways, encouraging everyone to resist going through the motions on this one:
The association’s Web page, titled “Guidance for Investors Regarding FASB’s Mark-to-Market Proposal,” includes a sample letter to the board “for educational purposes only.” The group urges investors to “write your own letter — the FASB does not appreciate ‘form’ letters, and often discounts them in their analyses.” Those who comment should “let FASB know that you are an investor,” the ABA says.
U.S. Banks Recruit Investors to Kill FASB Fair-Value Proposal [Bloomberg BusinessWeek]
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.
Proposed Overhaul of Accounting Standards Contains Mark-to-Market Rule [NYT]
The FASB has rolled out MTM 2.0 and while the usual suspects have already started belly-aching, Bob Herz insisted that “The financial crisis reinforced the need for better accounting in this area.”
The new rule will require loans and loan-related instruments to be valued at their market value immediately, thus accelerating any losses that might occur. Losses will either be booked as a hit to earnings or as a reduction in the value of the asset. The Times quotes Jack T. Ciesielski of Accounting Analyst Observer, who reassures, “It will messier to read, but if you know what you are doing you can figure it out.”
The comment period (which should yield some interesting thoughts) will run through the end of September, after which the FASB will hold roundtables discussing the rule and then make any final changes. Institutions with greater than $1 billion in assets will be required to adopt the rule in 2013 while those with less than $1 billion will have until 2017.
The Property Tax: Unsung Hero [TaxVox]
States have their property tax revenues to thank for their budgets not being in an even bigger mess than they already are, according to TaxVox. “[P]roperty tax revenues have yet to fall both because the levy tends to be backward-looking (it takes a while for assessed values to catch up with reality on both the upside and the downside) and because local governments can raise rates. The strength of the property tax was the main driver of the small positive growth in overall state and local taxes for the fourth quarter of 2009.”
If states are lucky, by the time property tax rates adjust to the reduced home values, sales and income tax revenue may be on their way to recovery. However, it’s unlikely that tax revenues will return to their previous levels which means governments may have to continue (or maybe start?) to – God forbid – cut spending.
“I Didn’t Know What ‘$’ Means” Fails as Tax Defense [TaxProf Blog]
Who let this guy out of the lab? “I am unaware of the meaning of this symbol.”
Yahoo CFO Sees Annual Revenue Growth Of 7%-10% From 2011-2013 [WSJ]
Contrary to what some might believe, Yahoo is still in business and doing quite well, thankyouverymuch. CFO Tim Morse expects things to brighten up with revenue increasing 7-10% from 2011-2013, due mostly to increased advertising business. Yahoo’s partnership with Microsoft and Zynga (they make Farmville) are seen as key to the search engine competing with Google.
Survey finds tax departments more concerned with getting it right than aggressive tax planning [GT Press Release]
Grant Thornton’s latest CFO survey finds that they are more concerned with getting their taxes right than with paying less. Obviously the latter is a goal but considering the regulatory environment (i.e. Democrats are running things), it’s not the priority, despite what those people running for re-election might tell you.
Bob Herz must be feeling a little blue now that his buddy Tweeds announced that he is hanging up his eyeshade.
This melancholic state has apparently led Herz to the conclusion that it’ll be okay to let banking regulators “use their own judgment” when it comes to letting banks stray from almighty GAAP:
“Handcuffing regula orting GAAP to always fit the needs of regulators is inconsistent with the different purposes of financial reporting and prudential regulation,” Mr. Herz said in the prepared text.
“Regulators should have the authority and appropriate flexibility they need to effectively regulate the banking system,” he added. “And, conversely, in instances in which the needs of regulators deviate from the informational requirements of investors, the reporting to investors should not be subordinated to the needs of regulators. To do so could degrade the financial information available to investors and reduce public trust and confidence in the capital markets.”
Mr. Herz said that Congress, after the savings and loan crisis, had required bank regulators in 1991 to use GAAP as the basis for capital rules, but said the regulators could depart from such rules.
Herz is calling it “decoupling” of the rules which sounds a hell of a lot like “the rules are the rules only when they don’t work out so well for banks.” Not sure about anyone else but it sounds like Herz is caving to political pressure after insisting that everyone butt out.
Because if we read that correctly, any time banking regulators are feeling sketchy about the market’s ability to put value on the banks’ assets, they’ll just call a time out on fair value with no ringing up the FASB, auditors, or anybody else to get a permission slip?
Will banking regulators even know when the market is being irrational? If you were to ask JDA, she’d probably say, “No fucking way.”
A less irreverent but similar point of view from Daniel Indiviglio at the Atlantic:
I worry that if regulators are provided this flexibility, then they will always suspend mark-to-market accounting when a crisis hits. But in cases where the market permanently corrects the value of assets downward, their values would remain elevated in the regulators’ eyes. Then, once the crisis appears to improve, banks will eventually cause a sort of secondary crisis when they are forced to begin realizing the decline in the value of those assets.
Moreover, I worry about how investors will react to this change. Imagine you’re an investor. A crisis hits, and regulators step in to suspend mark-to-market accounting for a bank you own equity in. Are you worried? I sure would be — regulators were so concerned about the bank’s assets that they felt forced to suspend mark-to-market accounting! As an investor, I’ll still do my own math to figure out what I think the bank’s assets are worth. So investors might dump the stock anyway, endangering the value of the institution despite this move by regulators.
So it’s fair value unless we’re in a potential shit + fan situation. In the off-chance that the regulators recognize the impending disaster, they’ll tell the banks to forget fair value for now. Then once everything is hunky dory, we go back to fair value. Whatever, we’re over it.
Board to Propose More Flexible Accounting Rules for Banks [Floyd Norris/NYT]
Should Regulators Be Able To Suspend Accounting Rules? [The Atlantic]
Also see: Decouple US accounting rules, bank regulation-FASB [Reuters]
Oh sure, anything is possible. However, on top of everyone not called Fox News calling P. Dubs the most shameless whore ever to issue a report on anything, Jonathan Weil at Bloomberg is now calling out some of P. Dubs’s (and KPMG probably for good measure) banking clients’ less-than consistent use of mark-to-whatever-the-hell-we-like.
Weil names three PwC clients (Midwest Banc Holdings, First Bancorp, BB&T Corp.) as showing loans with fair values greater than their carrying values as of June 30th. Midwest and First Bancorp’s stock prices are trading far below book value while BB&T’s stock price trades above book value.
As Weil points out, WTFK if these values are right or not? What is obvious is it seem like some banks are legitimately making a run at fair value and others are still using a dart board. Oh, and the PwC audit teams are okay with that. Nevermind comparability, Dow is above 10k bitches! Onward!
Mark-to-Make-Believe Turns Junk Loans to Gold [Bloomberg/Jonathan Weil]
According to Reuters columnist, James Pethokoukis, that is. JP argues that the FASB’s most recent attempt to go balls to the wall with mark-to-market will endanger the economy:
“What if an upgraded mark-to-market standard forced slowly healing banks to set aside huge sums to cover paper losses and further crimp lending? Not FASB’s problem.” He also argues that the FASB is motivated by the ideology around transparency as opposed to “practicality and experience”.
The problem, as we see it, with this argument is that JP sees mark-to-market as an inconvenient rule considering the circumstances that the economy is under. That very well may be but we would ask, what the hell is the alternative? “Massaging” the rules every so often, as he puts it? So making the rules less principled when they are inconvenient is the solution? Accounting rules are not written so that we can change them when they don’t work in our favor.
Make no mistake, we’re not crazy about the current system as it exists. GAAP continues to look more and more like the U.S. Tax Code, so the FASB’s sloth-like attempt to develop a “principles system” is
promising encouraging something. Mark-to-market is the best reflection of that something. The idea that tweaking of the rules under duress is an acceptable form of determining the direction of financial reporting is what drives accountants f’n berserk.
America’s Most Dangerous Man? An Accountant [James Pethokoukis/Reuters]
Sweet justice has finally arrived for supporters of mark-to-market accounting. According to the Financial Crisis Advisory Group, MTM may have actually understated some of the losses suffered by banks and “did not contribute to the pro-cyclical nature of the economic system.”
The Group also stated that public flogging of accounting rule wonks for the purposes of shameless political grandstanding doesn’t really help matters, “We have become increasingly concerned about the excessive pressure placed on the two boards to make rapid, piecemeal, uncoordinated and prescribed changes to standards, outside of their normal due process procedures”.
Our money is on the pols BTFO for as long as banks want them to and as inconvenient changes are proposed, which will likely be soon, the public beatings will continue.
Politicians Accused of Meddling in Bank Rules [Floyd Norris]
Accounting is semi-officially exonerated from causing crisis [FT Alphaville]
Apparently the wonks in Norwalk are girding up their loins to take on the banks again over fair value, described by FASB member Marc Siegel as a “religious war” (our pick would be The Crusades).
Under new preliminary proposals issued by the FASB last week, all financial assets, including loans would be marked to market every quarter and classifications like held to maturity, held for investment, and held for sale would go the way of the Dodo.
Jonathan Weil conceptulizes:
Think how the saga at CIT Group Inc. might have unfolded if loans already were being marked at market values. The commercial lender, which is struggling to stay out of bankruptcy, said in a footnote to its last annual report that its loans as of Dec. 31 were worth $8.3 billion less than its balance sheet showed. The difference was greater than CIT’s reported shareholder equity. That tells you the company probably was insolvent months ago, only its book value didn’t show it.
Got it? Well, banks are obviously not cool with this, as one lobbyist is quoted, “I guess the nicest thing I can say is it’s difficult to find the good in this.” I guess it’s on then bitches, as it sounds like the banks would much rather bleed out their orifices until the bitter, bitter end as opposed to report anything that is remotely transparent.
Accountants Gain Courage to Stand Up to Bankers: Jonathan Weil [Bloomberg]
This may come as shock to some of you but mark-to-market accounting is unpopular. And when we say unpopular, we don’t mean your nerdy brother-unpopular, we’re talking George W. Bush-unpopular. Now before you go apeshit about “reality” and “economic cycles” will share some results with you from a survey provided by Valuation Research Corporation and then you can engage in your the steel-cage
death dork match.
• According to the survey, 58% of respondents believe that market turmoil negates Fair Value Accounting’s validity
• Those who believed FVA was flawed and potentially not valid during market turmoil, almost 34% suggested a temporary return to historical cost accounting as an alternative
• Regarding Level 3 Assets: A full 44% believed the bank values were within an accuracy of 10% and another 40% thought those values were as much as 30% off.
• Regarding Level 3 Assets: Thirty-six percent believed hedge fund and private equity values were only within an accuracy of 10% and a full 49% thought those values were as much as 30% off.
• Respondents were split when asked if mark-to-market should be suspended for the purposes of bank regulatory capital with 50% believing it should be and 50% believing it should not be.
So the take away seems to be that MTM doesn’t work and is pretty much not legit when the shit hits the fan, everyone trying to value Level 3 assets is using a dartboard, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.
Definitely interesting results but if anyone says, “Barney Frank knew what he was talking about”, projectile vomiting is going ensue.
Survey – No Confidence in Fair Value.pdf