Global Business

EU Relents on Some Mark-to-Market Accounting

Finance ministers agree to allow banks, under some circumstances, to move assets from trading books to bank books — where they appear at-cost.
Stephen TaubOctober 7, 2008

As the growing chorus of critics blames mark-to-market accounting rules for much of the global financial-markets meltdown, European Union finance ministers apparently concur — and are eager to do something about it.

Today, the ministers agreed to allow EU banks to follow the same policy that was adopted by U.S. banks last week to ease the pain of recapitalizing.

According to Reuters, European banks in the third quarter are being allowed, in rare circumstances, to move an asset from their trading books, where assets are valued on a mark-to-market basis, and to place them in their bank books, where assets are valued at cost.

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“In accounting, the American groups are authorized to transfer assets from their trading book, where they evaluate assets at mark-to-market,” Christine Lagarde, finance minister for France, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, told Reuters. “We feel this method should also be allowed to apply to establishments in Europe.”

Reuters noted that banks have been forced to write down billions of euros of untradeable mortgage-backed securities, requiring them to sell assets cheaply to raise fresh capital because wholesale money markets have frozen.

“We expect this issue to be solved by the end of the month with the objective to implement as of the third quarter, in accordance with the relevant procedures,” the finance ministers said in a joint statement described by Reuters.

In a separate announcement discussing its response to the financial crisis in general, the Economic and Financial Affairs Council said, “We underline the necessity of avoiding any distortion of treatment between U.S. and European banks due to differences in accounting rules.”

Reuters said that the pressure is now on the International Accounting Standards Board to consider aligning its mark-to-market rule with changes made in the U.S. when it meets in London from Oct. 13 to Oct. 17.

EU diplomats said if the IASB does not make the change, the European Commission would make a formal proposal “within days” for EU ministers to adopt. “We can’t leave European industry at a competitive disadvantage to their American counterparts,” an EU official told the wire service.

“The IASB will be discussing the issue of reclassification of financial instruments at its board meeting next week,” an IASB spokesman told Reuters.