November 29, 2021

High & Low Finance: Accounting That Comes in Flavors

That is not going to happen.

Instead, it appears increasingly likely that for a substantial period of time there will be two sets of accounting rules in the United States, with companies able to choose between American or global rules.

And while most countries, including the United States, will say they embrace international accounting standards, there may be numerous flavors of them, with investors perhaps having trouble figuring out just how comparable financial statements really are.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is moving toward a formal decision, promised this year, on whether to adopt international financial reporting standards, known as I.F.R.S., as set by the International Accounting Standards Board. It already allows foreign companies whose securities trade in the United States to use those standards. It is expected to decide if, and when, to allow American companies to use them as well. It will also decide whether to require companies to use such standards.

Any decision will offend some people. Many international companies want to use the international standards everywhere, saying that would improve efficiency by no longer forcing them to use one set of rules in some countries and a different set at home.

But other American companies, particularly smaller ones, fear the expense involved in learning and applying a different set of rules. Some investors are highly suspicious, and fear that international standard setting will be more influenced by politics. Other investors think the political risk will be far higher if the United States does not sign on.

One member of the S.E.C., Kathleen L. Casey, said in a speech last week that the commission should move promptly to accept the international standards, saying investors would benefit from “accounting standards that provide investors with highly comparable, decision-useful information about businesses without regard to their domicile” and that American acceptance will lead to “continued improvements in the efficiency of the global capital markets.”

But in the same speech, she made clear that she did not really want one set of rules for everyone. She said any American company that did not like the international standards should be allowed to opt out, “at least initially, if not permanently.”

Mary L. Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., has not made clear what she wants to do, and members of the S.E.C. staff have suggested a sort of middle ground between the two alternatives that have seemed most likely.

Rather than “endorsement,” in which the S.E.C. would simply accept the international rules, or “convergence,” in which American rules would move toward the international standards and eventually be so similar that it would not matter, Paul A. Beswick, the deputy chief accountant of the commission, suggested “condorsement,” a sort of combination of the two.

Under that outcome, the American standard setter, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, would continue to set United States GAAP — Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — and would consider each new international standard.

“The ideal would be to incorporate such standards as issued by the I.A.S.B. without modification,” he said. “However, criteria would need to be established for F.A.S.B.’s consideration of endorsing or incorporating standards — for example, whether incorporating a given standard is in the interests of U.S. investors or the U.S. capital markets.”

If that were to happen, then there would be an American flavor of international financial reporting standards, just as there is now a European flavor. The European Commission, under heavy pressure from French banks, agreed to allow banks to opt out of part of one rule set by the international accounting board.

For practical purposes, there once was a single set of accounting standards for most major international companies —United States GAAP. Companies that wanted to raise capital internationally needed a United States listing, and that was available only if they either used GAAP or reconciled their statements to GAAP. Not all companies did so, but many did.

The road away from GAAP is partly a story of technological change and of globalization of markets. It is now quite easy for American investors, whether institutions or individuals, to buy shares on overseas exchanges, and for companies to tap American capital markets without registering with the S.E.C. It is also a story of others chafing under American dominance and of an international board that has established a respectable record of standard setting.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2ce654c4f5392c33227480e7cc8cb92c