Risk & Compliance

Obama’s Accounting Expert?

Paul Volcker, now officially an economic adviser to the incoming Obama administration, is famous as a fierce inflation fighter. But he also has str...
Tim ReasonNovember 26, 2008

Google Paul Volcker, and most of the results will focus on the former Fed chairman’s role as a hardnosed inflation fighter. In the late 1970s, Volcker jacked up interest rates, successfully taming runaway inflation, but also sparking the severe 1981-82 recession.

In a news conference today, President-elect Barack Obama named Volcker, now 81, as head of a special Economic Recovery Advisory board that will regularly brief the President.

At first blush, given the macroeconomic crisis facing the United States, it seems unlikely that the board would be dealing with seemingly esoteric issues such as accounting standards and auditing procedures. But biographical sketches of Volcker frequently overlook his deep background in accounting issues in favor of his roles at Treasury, at the Federal Reserve, and, more recently, as the lead investigator into corruption in the Iraqi Oil for Food program.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, such biographies ignore much of what has made Volcker, in the words of the press release from the Obama transition team, “one of the world’s foremost economic policy practitioners.”

For example, in 2000, Volcker chaired the oversight board that created the International Accounting Standards Board, and then served as head of the IASB’s trustees for two years.

In 2002, he was also brought in to try to reform Arthur Andersen in the immediate aftermath of the Enron scandal. And although Andersen fell apart too quickly for Volcker to accomplish much, the episode only enhanced his sterling reputation. Indeed, shortly thereafter, SEC-chairman Harvey Pitt to ask Volcker to head up the newly created Public Company Accounting Oversight Board — which Volcker declined, citing the time demands of the job.

Those experiences are all highly relevant in the midst of a financial collapse that has been widely blamed on accounting rules that, depending on your point of view, were either faulty or misapplied.

Just this week, for example, the American Bankers Association sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, complaining that all of the recent efforts to bolster bank capital could be undone if year-end financial reports have to follow current fair-value accounting rules. Those rules require banks to mark their assets to market. Critics have said the rules exacerbated the crisis by forcing banks to drastically mark down securities for which no market existed. Defenders argue that the rules actually exposed the extent of toxic assets on banks’ books. A third school of thought says that banks actually failed to use the flexibility built into fair-value measurement rules and harmed themselves by applying prices from markets that were all but frozen.

That’s just one of many accounting issues at the forefront of the current economic crisis. Another: Should the United States adopt International Financial Reporting Standards, bringing its listed companies closer in line those of Europe and others around the globe? Or are recent efforts in that direction too quick to abandon U.S. GAAP, putting at risk the reputation of the U.S. capital markets as well policed?

Likewise, what should be done about the auditing profession itself? Currently, corporate auditing is so concentrated among the Big Four accounting firms that many companies have trouble meeting independence requirements put in place by Sarbanes-Oxley. And audit firms themselves have repeatedly pushed for some level of indemnification against litigation. Indeed, many observers say fear of litigation led audit firms to be overly cautious about fair-value estimates, pushing banks to also err on the side of caution.

That last example doesn’t bode well for the adoption of international standards, which are far less reliant on prescriptive rules. But where will Volcker stand? In 2001, he stood by IASB chairman David Tweedie’s side as Tweedie noted that “If you want a standard to deal with 80 percent of the problems, you could do that in about 60 pages. If you want to deal with 95 percent, it would take another 200 pages.”

Likewise, when Volcker was brought in to try to reform Andersen, he surprised them by offering to throw out the existing managers out and run the accounting firm himself. His plan was to establish a seven-member panel that would ultimately select a new management team. Under his proposed plan, the revamped Andersen would have focused almost exclusively on auditing — and would substantially scale back its consulting business.

In a 2003 interview with CFO magazine, Volcker had the following thoughts on some of these issues:

On international standards: “All the [corporate] scandal has been a big help in one sense: it has challenged the traditional American view that if you want international standards, use our standards, because we’ve got the best and the brightest.”

On board structure: “I think the single most important structural change is to encourage nonexecutive chairmen. I think the best way to get some independent leadership on the board is to have a nonexecutive chairman who can also determine the agenda. That way, the board isn’t entirely at the mercy of the priorities and information of the chief executive. In extraordinary times, it becomes really important — for instance, when a company isn’t doing well, or when there’s some question as to whether you want a new chief executive, or when you have to pick a new chief executive.”

On whether CFOs should report to audit committees: “I think it’s a good idea, and one that has to be explored. But where do you find the people to spend all that time and have the experience to do it? I think on the ordinary board you have competent people who don’t have the time, and you have people who have the time but are not competent. My idea is to elect the members of the auditing committees separately, so that you’re not just voting for a slate of general-purpose people. You have to have some indication of who’s going to be on the audit committee, what his experience is, what his background is.”

Of course, it has been at least five years since Volcker was intimately involved in accounting and corporate governance issues. But his background is certainly food for thought. Given Volcker’s tacit approval of principles-based accounting, for example, banks may find that an Obama administration is not swayed by complaints about fair-value accounting. Audit firms are likely to find any Democratic administration unsympathetic to pleas for relief from the plaintiff’s bar, but all the more so with Volcker as an adviser. Yet, those who argue that the adoption of international financial reporting standards is a form of sneaking deregulation may also have a harder time making their case, given Volcker’s long association with the IASB.