Top Obama Advisers Clash on Global Accounting Standards

With Paul Volcker delivering a strong endorsement of International Financial Reporting Standards, the nominee for SEC chair, Mary Schapiro, testifi...
David Katz and Sarah JohnsonJanuary 15, 2009

With six days to go before Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, two important members of his economic team expressed clashing views on the move to a global system of financial reporting. If Paul Volcker, for instance, has anything to say about it—and if anyone has the president-elect’s ear on economic issues, he does—the incoming Obama administration will be a strong champion of the push for a single set of global accounting standards to be administered by the International Accounting Standards Board.

But how swiftly the adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards occurs within the United States will depend to a large extent on the actions of the chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, whose job it is to oversee public accounting standards. And Mary Schapiro, Obama’s choice to run the Securities and Exchange Commission, is showing signs of being a far less enthusiastic booster of IFRS and IASB than Mr. Volcker is.

In answer to a question by at a press conference today introducing a plan to reform the global financial system, Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and now the chairman of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, delivered a ringing endorsement of the establishment of International Financial Reporting Standards as part of a retooled regulatory system that he envisions.

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Under such a system, IASB, rather that the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board, would presumably hold sway. Acknowledging his past role as chairman of the International Accounting Standards Committee Foundation, IASB’s parent organization, Volcker said, “I do think we ought to be working toward international accounting standards and have them standard around the world under the general aegis of the International Accounting Standards Board, and there’s been a lot of progress in that direction.”

Even as Volcker was pushing IFRS, however, Mary Schapiro, Obama’s nominee for chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was advocating a go-slow approach on implementing the global standards in the United States. Schapiro, who heads the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, told the Senate Banking Committee during her confirmation hearing today that she plans to back off of current SEC Chairman Christopher Cox’s plans proposed roadmap for converting U.S. companies to international financial reporting standards. “I will not be bound by the existing roadmap that’s out for public comment,” she said.

Schapiro said she has concerns about the pace of the timeline, the independence of IASB, and the quality of the standards themselves. Considered more principles-based than U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, IFRS are not as detailed and give more room for interpretation, she said.

She is also worried about the cost use companies might incur in making the conversion, considering that the SEC estimates it will cost as high as $32 million for each of the largest of companies to adopt IFRS.