The Spirit of Accounting
Every so often, we're overwhelmed by the variety of topics available for our column. We've decided to touch briefly on 19 current issues, doing a "Lightning Round," instead of covering only one in depth.
1. European patience. In February, Thomson Reuters reported that Michel Barnier, a European commissioner and lifetime French bureaucrat, chided the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by saying, "European patience has its limits, and we are not far from reaching that limit. We hope the United States will apply [IFRS]." We reply to his patronizing and condescending comment by saying, "Who cares?" Before lecturing the U.S., M. Barnier should learn about the many structural, political and philosophical impediments that make IFRS and the International Accounting Standards Board unsuitable.
2. Schapiro's resolve. The same article reports that Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Schapiro is feeling "no pressure" to abandon the best interests of American investors and capital markets by participating in the IFRS love fest. Unlike so many others, she gets it and hooray for her.
3. Hoogervorst's delusion. IASB Chair Hans Hoogervorst has announced to various audiences that he expects the U.S. to adopt IFRS within a few months. Besides framing the issue incorrectly (the question is whether the U.S. will endorse the IASB), he needs to realize that nothing's going to happen beyond the Financial Accounting Standards Board incorporating a few select ideas from IFRS. He should also accept the possibility that the IASB will incorporate some of FASB's ideas into IFRS.
4. Hoogervorst's pipedream. In January, Hoogervorst made this absurd claim in Russia about the results of their adopting IFRS: "International companies will now be able to raise capital in Russia while international investors will be entirely familiar with ... Russian financial statements." Is he oblivious to the fact that the country is rife with such significant risk factors as economic instability, political corruption and organized crime? Adopting IFRS surely cannot eliminate these problems.
5. Hoogervorst's vision. The IASB chair also spoke in Mexico about the board's future plans. Playing to those who cling to the status quo, he cast this flaccid vision: "Let's fix what needs fixing, and no more," and offered a multi-year period of "relative stability." These words show he wants to build a global empire, instead of dealing with real issues. Why else would he want to do nothing substantive when his board's agenda should be full of significant projects?
6. Emerging strength. Now that FASB's quest to converge core standards has lost steam, its members can begin to pursue their own vision and resolve issues they consider important. This effect, combined with the board's bolstered independence, has produced a newfound strength that was recently demonstrated in their unpopular but resolute decision to not redo FIN 48 on income taxes. We're expecting them to get started on pervasive issues, like pensions, cash flow statements, and inventory in order to produce the great progress that is so obviously needed.
7. Private-company GAAP. We continue to be bemused by the private-company GAAP fray where people so adamantly demand what they don't realize they're asking for. Why are so many clamoring for a separate board that just won't work like they think it will? Specifically, legitimate private-company GAAP will require reporting fair asset and liability values to support decisions about private companies' creditworthiness and aggregate market value.
8. Private-company GAAP politics. If they weren't so fervent, the actions of PC-GAAP proponents would be laughable. First, they stacked a so-called "Blue Ribbon Panel" with people who already had their minds made up. Next, this biased group received input only from CPAs and managers who echoed their pre-existing views. Then, when the Financial Accounting Foundation said that it's not interested, the AICPA Elite unleashed not one but two hot-under-the-collar campaigns to inundate the FAF with meaningless carbon copy letters. This behavior is neither persuasive nor admirable.
9. Tax reform. We're seeing one politician after another claim to know what's needed to fix the tax system, including campaign promises to eliminate "loopholes" while creating "incentives." That idea sounds good until you grasp the difference between those terms. To a politician, tax law creates an incentive if it produces benefit for you or your constituents; it produces a loophole if the benefit goes to someone else.
10. Tax accounting reform. Alas, policy discussions on tax reform would be more productive if GAAP provided useful information about who pays how much tax and when. SFAS 109 basically affirmed the old bad idea that a dollar of postponed taxes is still a dollar of current expense, with the result that most corporations pay far less than the tax expense on their income statements. Because informed debates require solid numbers about how much they're actually paying, it's time GAAP provided them.
11. Massive gains looming? While politicians are agreeing that corporate rates should be reduced, no one seems to anticipate what that move would do to GAAP income. Under SFAS 109, deferred tax liabilities for postponed payments are measured by multiplying accumulated taxable temporary differences by the rate expected to apply when the differences reverse. If the tax rate is cut, all those liabilities will instantly shrink and the resulting gain will be offset against the current year's tax expense. Imagine the political outcry when corporations report huge upfront increases in after-tax EPS as soon as Congress acts.
12. Dumb LIFO Trick No. 1. The administration's plan proposes eliminating LIFO, thus taxing the difference between LIFO and FIFO results. If that happened, reported operating margins would show a big (even humongous) one-time boost when decades-old costs flow out of inventory accounts into cost of goods sold. Of course, real cash inflows won't change one iota. The kicker is that real cash outflows will skyrocket to pay taxes on the bogus windfall. If stimulus is the goal, it doesn't make sense to repeal LIFO now. If only politicians could think at least part of the way through their ideas.
13. Dumb LIFO Trick No. 2. One of the plan's asserted motives for dropping LIFO is that doing so would help clear the way for adopting IFRS. Oh, really? Even if that specious advantage were real, it could not possibly justify the $70+ billion estimated tax hit for LIFO users. Here's a better idea: Retain LIFO but get rid of the 73-year-old conformity rule that causes tax policy to mess up financial reporting policy.
14. Stifling dissent? Our December and March columns heavily criticized the AICPA Elite's decision to roll out the new Chartered Global Management Accountant designation. Not surprisingly, we've received many letters from folks pleased the issue is now on the table. Some have revealed that the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (which would merge with the AICPA to produce AICPA 2.0) also has an Elite that is just as off-base as their American counterparts. Others reported that the AICPA Elite has banned some members' comments about CGMA topics in online discussions, apparently because they dared to quote us or otherwise question this move. If the Elite is suppressing free speech to stifle dissent to their scheme, they're sending another clear signal that new leadership is needed.
15. How much? After seeing the Elite's massive promotional blitz to hype the CGMA label, we hereby demand an accounting from AICPA chief executive Barry Melancon for the cost of this pointless campaign. Based on past experience, we figure he'll never provide one, but we intend to keep asking. If you're an AICPA member who wants to know, please write him yourself. More important, don't fall for the bogus claims and promises.
16. Cease and desist! The Elite continues claiming to speak for all institute members, most recently on auditor rotation. Mr. Melancon: Stop doing that until you legitimately assess all members' opinions. Any fair polling method must be unbiased and accessible, thus excluding your solicitation of negative letters to the Financial Accounting Foundation. To be clear, always disclaim that your personal opinion isn't the institute's view.
17. The PCAOB unleashed. We perceive that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, like FASB, is a stirring giant. And, as we hope FASB will do, the PCAOB has challenged some sacred ideas that have survived long beyond their useful lives.
18. New audit objective. It makes sense that auditors should opine on what statement users need assurances about, namely that a company's reports can be relied on to be free from fraud and otherwise truthful. For decades, auditors have obstinately said they can't do those things but that they can attest to compliance with worthless GAAP. If today's auditors cannot deliver what markets need, it's time to find new ones who can. Here's unarguable truth: Doing what isn't useful cannot be justified by the difficulty of doing what is useful. And here is a corollary: If something isn't useful, it isn't worth doing.
19. Auditor rotation. Audits should provide assurance that financial statements are trustworthy. But who's providing that assurance? It's management's decades-old friend who accepts payment in return for saying, "Everything's fine." Of course, that's an oversimplification, but it does provide insight into the problems that the PCAOB is tackling. Rotation is but a baby step to increase perceived professional skepticism. Because the next step would have auditors paid by a trust fund, instead of their clients, we think they ought to accept rotation thankfully. Instead, they've run to Congress for protection. Balderdash.
THUNDER AFTER LIGHTNING
We hope this lightning run through these issues will create thunder in the form of new ideas. After all, stagnation is the biggest problem facing all of accounting. Surely, we need very fresh innovative ideas, instead of warmed-over ancient ones.
Our perennial goal is to keep raising significant questions to stimulate a new vision that is desperately needed now more than ever. The good news is that the most influential regulatory bodies are liberated like never before and poised to create real progress. We encourage them to do it now.
Paul B. W. Miller is a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Paul R. Bahnson is a professor at Boise State University. The authors' views are not necessarily those of their institutions. Reach them at email@example.com.