Capital Markets

IFRS Returns to the Front Burner

Leading the charge to convert the world to International Financial Reporting Standards, David Tweedie says many of the problems opponents cite are ...
Marie LeoneOctober 8, 2009

The debate over whether U.S. companies should be forced to use international accounting standards took on new life last month when the Securities and Exchange Commission assured investors, companies, and accountants that the project is still active. Once the SEC announced it hadn’t lost sight of the project, criticism of International Financial Reporting Standards bubbled up again, with opponents making the same arguments they did when the SEC released the IFRS roadmap in 2007.

The main criticisms: training U.S. accountants and auditors by the proposed 2014 deadline would be impossible; the SEC would cede its regulatory power to a global regulator; the standard-setter that wrote the rules — the International Accounting Standards Board — would buckle under political pressure; and compared with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, IFRS is weak and would therefore invite accounting abuse.

But IASB chairman David Tweedie says those old complaints don’t conform to current realities. He contends there won’t be many differences, in fact, between U.S. GAAP and IFRS by the year 2015 if the current project to converge the two sets of rules continues at its current pace.

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The agenda and time line for the convergence project, which was launched seven years ago by the IASB and its U.S. counterpart, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, will be updated at the end of the month during a three-day joint board meeting. As of today, the time line does not extend past 2011 — the year the SEC expects to vote on whether to move forward with mandatory adoption of IFRS, or to abandon the project.

Speaking to reporters at a Deloitte client conference in New York this week, Tweedie said obstacles regarding U.S. education have already fallen. For one thing, IFRS textbooks are already available in English from publishers in the United Kingdom and Australia. What’s more, by mid-2008 each of the Big Four accounting firms — who are major supporters of IFRS — had begun working with colleges to revamp curricula to include IFRS. (The American Accounting Assn., whose members are accounting professors, created a task force two years ago to develop IFRS curricula that could be rolled out to colleges.)

The notion that auditors are unprepared for the change also is a stretch, argued Tweedie. By his lights, any accounting firm that works with big or small multinationals already deals with financials prepared using IFRS. Further, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which develops audit standards for privately held firms, has launched, a Website aimed at providing its 300,000 members with training, resources, and updates on lobbying efforts on behalf of CPAs.

Last year the AICPA also recognized the IASB as a standard-setter, which in effect allows U.S. auditors to express opinions on financial statements prepared using IFRS. The AICPA “put IFRS on the same plane as U.S. GAAP,” says Barry Epstein, a CPA and partner with litigation consultancy Russell Novak & Co. “David Tweedie is right: the momentum [for IFRS] is there; it is like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Epstein says the “watershed” event that fueled the creation of the SEC’s IFRS roadmap — the proposal to move U.S. companies to IFRS by 2014 — was the 2007 SEC rule that waived the reconciliation requirement for foreign private issuers. As a result, foreign companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges were no longer required to reconcile their IFRS results with U.S. GAAP. By giving permission “to the visiting team” to use IFRS, the SEC created an outcry among companies and investors for a level playing field that included a plan to allow American companies to file financial results in IFRS, says Epstein, adding that investors and companies must “face the reality that IFRS is here to stay.”

But opponents who contend that U.S. GAAP is the global gold standard for transparent and robust financial reporting say the lack of rules and guidance in IFRS invites accounting abuse. Critics taking that view include the New York State Society of CPAs, which, with its 30,000 members, is one of the country’s largest groups of accountants. In a comment letter filed with the SEC about the roadmap, the NYSSCPA panned the proposal, finding the quality of IFRS lacking and the conversion costs too hefty, and claiming that “carve-outs” — the exceptions to IFRS that different countries develop — impair the comparability and consistency of financial statements that investors rely on.

The group also echoed a common complaint heard among IFRS opponents: the IASB caved in to political pressure last year when it allowed companies to retroactively reclassify assets so they could “cherry-pick” those with significant losses and remove them from net-income calculations. Tweedie’s retort is that if the IASB hadn’t acted to control the rule change, the European Commission would have passed a law that changed the rule in a less desirable way.

The handful of comment letters that CFOs filed with the SEC about the roadmap reveal mixed reactions to IFRS. For instance, C. Bradford Richmond of Darden Restaurants wrote: “[T]he large majority of U.S. public companies, like Darden, serve primarily domestic customer bases and are adequately capitalized without tapping overseas capital markets. Rather than mandating IFRS for all companies, we believe it would be more appropriate to allow large multinational organizations to adopt IFRS on a voluntary basis.” Similarly, Elyse Douglas of The Hertz Corp. noted: “In our opinion, there has been no groundswell of public opinion promoting a conversion to IFRS. In fact, we have never heard an investor in our company, any stock analyst covering Hertz, or any lender with which we do business suggest to us that they would prefer we report our results in IFRS.”

Conversely, Martyn Webster of XenoPort Inc. wrote: “If the U.S. remains outside of the IFRS framework, then we will somewhat compromise our ability to participate in, and influence, important matters related to the overall operations of global capital markets.”

A new Deloitte survey that polled 150 corporate finance executives concluded that 51% of the respondents would support the SEC’s roadmap for adopting IFRS if the regulator considered pushing back the mandatory deadline a year, to 2015. Nineteen percent said they supported the roadmap “as is,” while 15% rejected the proposal. The remaining executives said they were unsure how the SEC should proceed.

Tweedie contends that while some critics claim the SEC will lose power if American companies switch to IFRS, the opposite is true. “The SEC will increase power” if the U.S. moves to IFRS, he says. “The beauty of the SEC is that it is one of the world’s most effective regulators, and that puts peer pressure on others.”

That pressure will extend to private companies as well, noted D.J. Gannon, a Deloitte partner and the firm’s IFRS expert, who also took part in the press briefing. He said that once the SEC acts to require public companies to file results using IFRS, larger private companies will follow in order to keep up with the competition. In addition, lenders to smaller private companies will demand it from their borrowers. “It will take time; we are not going to go from zero to 60 in three months,” noted Gannon, who thinks that over the next few years, momentum to use IFRS will grow.

It wasn’t until recently that the SEC weighed in on the progress of its own roadmap. Since becoming SEC chair in late January, Mary Schapiro had remained quiet on the subject of the roadmap, a project her Republican predecessor, Christopher Cox, launched during his term. Schapiro’s silence led some observers to believe the SEC was backing off from IFRS altogether.

But recent public statements made by Schapiro and James Kroeker, the SEC’s chief accountant, assured constituents that the IFRS project had a green light. Schapiro’s silence was a way of “establishing her territory [and] showing she was not doing the bidding of the previous Administration,” contends Epstein. “I don’t think it is possible to stop [the move to IFRS] or delay it. It costs money to keep companies in limbo.”

Others, including Charles Niemeier, a member and former acting chair of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, have criticized the “rush” to deploy IFRS in the United States. For his part, Niemeier would like to see the IASB-FASB convergence project finished before requiring U.S. companies to file in IFRS. That, he thinks, would ensure that the combined standards remain stringent.

A precipitous exit from GAAP undermines the U.S. regulatory system and places “in jeopardy the thing that gives the U.S. a competitive advantage,” he noted at an industry meeting in 2008. “All research shows that the U.S. is unique in its regulation. No [country] is as effective…. We have the lowest cost of capital in the world. Do we really want to give that up?”

Additional reporting by David McCann and Jason Karaian.