It's not every accounting conference that the attendees have a chance to come away with a bit of horticulture knowledge.
Speaking earlier this week to a crowd of CPAs, it wasn't statistics, or legalese, or accounting theory that Public Company Accounting Oversight Board member Charles Niemeier turned to in describing the problems at the root of the accounting environment. It was the mozo bamboo plant. And in making the case for the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, it was the history of the automotive seat belt.
In fact, analogies frequently popped up in his presentation at the New York State Society of CPAs' annual Sarbanes-Oxley conference, which focuses on current developments in the law. Niemeier told the audience that the Southeast Asian bamboo plant can appear to lie dormant for up to five years, before growing as much as a foot a day and to more than 100 feet total.
The suddenness of that growth spurt is a bit deceptive though, he said. For much of those early years, the plant is developing a complex root system. It's only then that it has the foundation for its shoots to take off.
"That's how these problems can develop," he said, turning back to accounting talk. "You don't see the signs ... For too long we've been operating in a reactive model, where the issues aren't apparent until they're well above ground."
In crediting the Financial Accounting Standards Board for pursuing issues such aas pension and lease accounting, Niemeier pointed to Enron's accounting practices as serving to illustrate his point. "What really scares me about Enron is that so much of what they were doing was right," he said. "It was just that towards the end, they got sloppy."
In other words, Enron wasn't the first to bend existing accounting principles. It was just the first to bend them to the point that its business failed.
Throughout his speech, Niemeier repeatedly said that history has shown that regulatory change is hard. He turned to the seat belt as a case in point. While doctors were suggesting that seatbelts might be a good idea in cars as early as the 1930s, it wasn't until the 1950s that manufacturers actually rolled out the devices in just two car models. And it wasn't until a decade later, in the 1960s, that federal requirements made it mandatory for belts to be installed in all vehicles.
And even then, Niemeier said -- no doubt thinking of the recent challenges leveled against the high costs and questionable effectiveness of Sarbanes-Oxley by the law's detractors -- misinformation about the soundness and safety of the devices continued to persist. It was the 1980s, when enforcement was introduced on a state level and tickets began being written, that widespread adoption of seat belt usage actually happened.
"There's nothing new in Sarbanes-Oxley," Niemeier said. "All that's in there has been in securities law before. What's changed is that now there's a policeman."
How exactly we got from, "the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" (which is how President Bush described the bill when he signed it in July 2002), to a seat belt analogy is a discussion for another day.
And while the CPA crowd may have been expecting a more technical discussion (which it got plenty of from the PCAOB speaker who followed Niemeier on the agenda), that simplified seat belt analogy is probably the best hope of ever driving home the importance of SOX in the court of public opinion, or to investors in U.S. markets.
"You can't regulate honesty," Niemeier said. "But that doesn't mean you should ignore safety belts."
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