The Financial Times recently published the following op-ed piece of mine, entitled Judgment Too Important to be Left to the Accountants.
Two serious asset bubbles–the dotcom explosion of the late 1990s and the recent dizzying ascension in housing prices–have developed in the US economy within the past decade.
Given their damaging consequences, it is time to look for causes. One area that merits attention is fair value accounting, which was adopted as policy by the accounting profession in the 1990s.
This accounting convention requires financial intermediaries to carry their assets at market values, even if those assets are not being held for trading purposes.
When the dotcoms were in vogue, the assets of securities firms and other equity intermediaries were inflated, just as, more recently, rising housing values made banks and other mortgage lenders look flush. Inflated balance sheets and income statements supported more borrowing and more leverage; suddenly, the markets were awash in liquidity and risk premiums fell to unprecedented levels. It could be argued, then, that fair value accounting was the hothouse in which these bubbles bloomed; when prices are rising this system seems both to stimulate and ride the wave of irrational exuberance.
But matters look much less agreeable when the same asset values are falling. Then, the process works in reverse, and the spiral points downwards.
As assets fall in value, leverage rises, creditors and counterparties demand more collateral coverage, and companies must sell assets that they can no longer finance. Forced asset sales drive down prices, causing further write downs of assets under fair value principles–even for those who are not selling. And so it goes on. The downward spiral is continuing as this is written, and where it stops nobody knows.
Fair value accounting also has a one-size-fits-all quality that mimics the inflexibility of over-regulation. Valuing assets with reference to the market seems reasonable for firms that earn their profits from, say, buying and selling securities. In that case, what the market will pay for the firm’s assets and liabilities at any given time may be a good way to assess its overall value. But what about intermediaries such as commercial banks, which are generally in the business of profiting from cash flows? Does it make any difference to an investor in a bank–an investor who is looking to the bank’s success in corralling cash flows–that the market value of the assets that produce these flows may vary?
Many banks point out that the cash flows on portfolios they have substantially written down are doing just fine. A wooden application of fair value accounting to banks–while it may simplify the work of accountants–seems to do a disservice to bank investors, and even more so bank depositors.
If, as banks claim, fair value accounting is causing commercial banks to appear much weaker than they are in fact, it is creating a financial crisis where a mere slowdown might have been warranted.
Fair value accounting is clearly the reigning orthodoxy among accountants, but is that the right test? Accounting is simply a measurement system. What we want to know determines what and how we measure. Which is more important, the balance sheet or the income statement? Do we want to measure financial strength or earnings per share or cash flows? Is the purpose to inform equity investors or creditors and counterparties? Does one measurement system meet all of these objectives?
Given its impact on institutions and whole economies, common sense suggests that we consider whether one means of measurement is the only one we should be looking at. The world view of accountants at a particular time should not determine the answers to these questions.
It is important to recall the famous remark of Clemenceau that war is too important to be left to the generals.