From the Regulators

ISOCO panel discusses challenges inherent in setting accounting standards

By James Langton |

In his keynote address to a meeting of global securities regulators today, Christopher Cox, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, suggested that international financial reporting standards could become a sort of lingua franca for the financial world.

While the world is a long way from speaking a common language, Cox suggested in a speech to the International Organization of Securities Commissions' annual meeting in Paris today, that worldwide adoption of the International Financial Reporting Standards would at least give the planet a common language for financial reporting. The benefit, he suggested, would include improved investor confidence and easier comparability between firms.

However, in the debate that followed his remarks, it became clear that the world is far from unanimous on the form this new language should take, and the range of dialects it should permit.

On a panel moderated by Junichi Maruyama, deputy commissioner for international affairs at Japan's Financial Services Agency, John Glen, group financial director at Air Liquide, an industrial gas firm based in Paris, cautioned against sacrificing relevance in financial reporting for the sake of comparability at all costs, suggesting that most investors don't necessarily need global comparability, particularly when the price is less meaningful financial information. He stressed that the original intention for IFRS was a common set of principles that could be interpreted with some latitude, not a narrowly-defined set of principles that are virtually rules.

Glen pointed out that while investors are often referred to as if they were a single body, not all investors share the same interests. He stressed that professional investors are often the focus of these sorts of discussions, and retail investors may not have the same priorities.

The panel also discussed some of the challenges inherent in setting such standards, such as effective governance. The SEC's Cox called for a standard-setting process that's transparent, carried out by a standard-setting body that's both independent and accountable.

Additionally, it tackled the increasingly-contentious topics of fair value accounting, and the use of off-balance sheet vehicles.

Patrick de Cambourg, president of Mazars, a Paris-based auditing and accounting firm, observed that the recent market turmoil has highlighted the limitations of fair value accounting, as market values may not reflect reality at times of extreme volatility and a dearth of liquidity.

However, recalling the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, secretary-general at the Securities and Exchange Commission of Thailand, and chairman of the IOSCO Asia-Pacific Regional Committee, said that when his country went through financial turmoil some of best advice it got from the IMF was to mark down troubled assets and write-off losses immediately. He pointed out that the current lack of liquidity may have genuine justification — such as the rapid pace of losses and recapitalizations, the high liquidity risk in the markets, and unsustainable underwriting practices that created the problem in the first place.

As for the use of off-balance sheet vehicles, de Cambourg said that regulators should be very tough on this because, ultimately, assets have to be held somewhere, they can't be nowhere. And, he cited this uncertainty as one of the reasons for heightened counterparty risk in the market, since financial firms can't trust one another without knowing what may end up on their balance sheets.

The meeting continues tomorrow with four other panels on the schedule.