Black Mark

An accounting standard comes under the microscope.
Economist StaffMay 19, 2008

THIS has been a crisis of firsts. The first major crisis of the securitisation era; the first big test of the European Central Bank; and the first crisis of “fair-value” accounting, the set of standards which requires institutions to mark many of their assets to market value. Many blame fair value for causing the credit crunch, arguing that it can cause a downward spiral in prices by encouraging institutions to sell assets quickly and forcing them to take write-downs that do not reflect the “true” value of the underlying assets.

“Fair value is a big mistake,” says the boss of one big European bank. AIG, an American insurer, has proposed a change to the rulebook so that companies and their auditors would put only their own estimates of maximum losses into the profit-and-loss account.

A lot of the criticism is pure cant. After all, mark-to-market gains were happily accepted by banks before the bubble burst. The regime’s more helpful rules are still being applied with gusto: for example, banks are able to reduce the fair value of their own debt issues if the credit spreads on them widen. Barclays, for one, recorded gains of £658m ($1.3 billion) on its own liabilities in fiscal 2007.

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The fact that deciding on a fair value has been so tough reflects the complexity of the products as much as the state of the markets. Setting a price for derivatives that have been repeatedly repackaged, overcollateralised and subordinated is difficult in any conditions. “Four thousand pieces of a Porsche are more difficult to value than a Porsche itself and the sum of the parts does not equal the whole,” says Bill Michael of KPMG, an accountancy firm (choosing an appropriate car).

Some banks clearly also underestimated the risks of illiquidity. Industry insiders report that prudent institutions were running internal valuation models even when market prices were clearly observable: those that were not had to scramble to develop such models when markets seized up, causing delays in proper disclosure. Many banks failed to price the chances of illiquidity into the cost of internal funding for traders. And some institutions, bankers allege, were parking illiquid structured products in their trading books to attract a lower capital charge (regulators now plan to beef these charges up). That meant mark-to-market losses immediately showed up in their income statements.

The alternative to fair value — holding assets at historic cost — has few admirers. “Is it really better to keep losses and not to tell shareholders?” asks John Smith of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). It is striking that executives at American investment banks, which have long been subject to fair-value rules, largely accept the regime.

There are lessons to be learned. With marking to market, a wobble can quickly become a collapse, illiquidity makes prices harder to set and valuations are more susceptible to sentiment. That increased volatility needs to feature in executives’ and risk managers’ calculations.

Regulators also need to bear in mind that one of the central assumptions of the fair-value regime has not worked out quite as planned. If prices fall too far, as critics say they now have done, investors should be stepping in to buy the assets. But that is difficult when everyone is reducing their leverage. “Clients invariably say they would like to buy but they cannot because they own too much of it already or they own something else,” says Colm Kelleher, Morgan Stanley’s chief financial officer.

Moreover, fair-value accounting appears to play a part in the upswing of a cycle as well as in the downswing. Research by Tobias Adrian of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Hyun Song Shin of Princeton University indicates that banks take on more debt when the mark-to-market value of their assets increases. In other words, fair value did not just worsen the bust: it also fuelled the boom.