Pro-American Mood Clouds Convergence

Only the biggest U.S. companies should bother adopting the international financial reporting standards written by the International Accounting Stan...
Tim ReasonOctober 29, 2009

With regulators pushing hard for a convergence of U.S. generally accepted accounting principles and international financial reporting standards within the next few years, the mood here appears to be swinging decidedly in favor of American standard-setters and American standards.

For example, 71% of the 846 CFOs and controllers responding to a recent survey by Grant Thornton say the Financial Accounting Standards Board should set U.S. accounting standards, not the International Accounting Standards Board or the U.S. Congress.

Only 24% say they would favor an “international independent board supervised by international entities such as the International Organization of Securities Regulators, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund” — for example, the IASB.

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What’s more, in a new book to be released early in November, Robert Pozen, former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Committee to Improve Financial Reporting, or CIFR, suggests that only the largest of U.S. companies should bother adopting the international financial reporting standards written by the IASB.

“The switchover from U.S. GAAP makes sense only for the 100–300 of the largest U.S. companies with extensive global operations,” writes Pozen, chairman of MFS Investment Management, in Too Big to Save?, his soon-to-be-released policy analysis of the economic crisis.

Pozen was asked by the SEC to head the CIFR in 2007, and the blue-ribbon panel was given 12 months to formulate suggestions, which it released in August 2008. The CIFR’s 170-page report seemed to endorse the general idea of accounting with fewer bright-line rules — which is often touted as the IASB’s approach. But Pozen tells CFO that the committee generally avoided making any direct conclusions about IFRS. “We carefully avoided IFRS,” he recalls, noting that the SEC was “overwhelmed” with the question of IFRS adoption at the time and that his committee had a broader mandate. “The sorts of reforms we proposed should apply to the way IFRS is done [too].”

In his new book, however, Pozen has plenty to say about IFRS. He notes that different national flavors of IFRS are undermining its benefit as a universal system, and says significant differences remain between U.S. and international accounting systems. For that reason, he says, the SEC’s proposal to allow companies the option of adopting IFRS early is problematic. “The United States should not allow company executives to choose between the two accounting standards because executives will obviously select the one with the highest reported income,” he writes.

While it makes sense for the largest of U.S. companies to convert to IFRS, Pozen says the move would prove too costly for most of the roughly 7,000 publicly traded companies in the United States, which “have modest foreign operations and relatively small accounting departments.”

“We have to look at this as a cost-benefit issue,” Pozen tells CFO. His book cites the example of Martin Headley, CFO of Brooks Automation, a Massachusetts company serving the semiconductor industry. “Although 36 percent of its $526 million in revenue came from foreign sales in 2008, the company’s chief financial officer says that switching to IFRS would cost millions of dollars without providing substantial benefits,” writes Pozen.

Speaking at a conference last fall attended by CFO’s reporters, Headley said he plans to take a minimalist approach to IFRS, training some key individuals on his staff rather than replacing them or hiring more experts. “I’ll be waiting until I’m sure it’s actually going to happen,” he said.