Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox delivered an easier-said-than-done speech earlier this month on the need to simplify accounting rules.
Speaking before the annual American Institute of CPAs National Conference on Current SEC and PCAOB Developments, Cox's remarks received a great deal of ink. But in a situation like this, change is obviously something that can't come overnight -- just ask the members of President Bush's Advisory Panel on Tax Reform, who, after a year of work, has seen its recommendations largely dismissed as a political impossibility.
At first glance, for investors, being "for" simplified accounting seems like being "for" the right to oxygen. But the question is really what happens when a financial picture is painted in the full light of day. The issue seems like an easy one until the politics of power and business become involved.
"Our financial reporting system is the cumulative product of pressure from different constituencies. That's one of its strengths ... But the sheer accretion of detail has led to one of the system's weaknesses -- its extreme complexity," Cox said. "Convolution is now reducing its usefulness."
But accounting rules adopted in recent years, to paint a truer picture of a company's finances and be more upfront about the potential for liabilities, have been met with something less than enthusiasm. Beyond the attestation and internal controls provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, companies are already grousing about things such as accounting for stock options.
And despite growing concerns coming out of the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp., it doesn't seem like anyone's that much closer to accounting for the costs of expensive and expansive pension promises. Last year , government estimates put the deficit of traditional pensions at $450 billion. The PBGC, which takes over failed plans, is itself underfunded by more than $22.8 billion and has calculated that financially weak companies with a reasonable chance of terminating their pensions are $96 billion short of covering promised benefits.
Not the sort of numbers that when revealed, are going to put the public, never mind shareholders, any closer to ease.
"The accounting scandals that our nation and the world have now mostly weathered were made possible in part by the sheer complexity of the rules," he said. "Criminal conduct could be concealed in a thicket of detail. Conformity to hundreds of technical rules became not a shield to protect investors, but a sword to be wielded against them."
Now, try reducing an annual report to the simple phrases found in the nonprofessional editions of QuickBooks. I certainly wouldn't mind it. But any report or statement is only as good as the numbers contained within it.
Cox said that the Financial Accounting Standards Board is already working to assess standards in major areas where rules fail to provide transparent information; establish a single source for all GAAP material; and stem new pronouncements coming out of multiple sources.
Accounting is, without a doubt, a convoluted field, and it seems like every day a regulatory body is proposing a new rule as the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury struggle to keep up with decoding new legislation coming out of Congress. And that's why good accountants are paid a premium. But honesty isn't something that can be regulated, and one-size-fits-all accounting provisions aren't going to stop dishonest executives from forming dummy corporations or lying about the timing of revenues.
There's some irony in that Cox is making his pitch at a time when the furor over the impact of Sarbanes-Oxley is becoming louder. On Dec. 14, an advisory panel to the SEC could officially decide to ask the agency to exempt businesses with less than $125 million in revenues from the internal control provisions laid out under Sarbanes-Oxley. Cox hasn't yet publicly said where he stands on the issue. But a good show of faith that he's serious about simplifying accounting would be to support a move to free those small companies of the burden of internal controls.
As long a process as any meaningful simplification would be, the question of whether that's the best move for businesses, investors, or both, is something that won't be clear for even longer.
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