Thursday, April 2, 2009
U.S. accounting watchdog eases mark-to-market rules
Ian Katz, Bloomberg The Financial Accounting Standards Board, pressured by U.S. lawmakers and financial companies, voted to relax fair-value rules that Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. say don't work when markets are inactive. The changes approved on Thursday to fair-value, also known as mark-to-market, allow companies to use "significant" judgment in valuing assets to reduce writedowns on certain investments, including mortgage-backed securities. Accounting analysts say the measure, which can be applied to first-quarter results, may boost banks' net income by 20% or more. FASB approved the changes during a meeting in Norwalk, Conn. House Financial Services Committee members pressed FASB chairman Robert Herz at a March 12 hearing to revise fair-value, which requires banks to mark assets each quarter to reflect market prices, saying the rule unfairly punished financial companies. FASB's proposals, made four days later, spurred criticism from investor advocates and accounting-industry groups, which say fair-value forces companies to disclose their true financial health. Blackstone Group LP Chairman Stephen Schwarzman, the American Bankers Association and 65 lawmakers in the House of Representatives urged that fair-value accounting, mandated by FASB, be suspended last September. William Isaac, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 1981 to 1985, has called fair value "extremely and needlessly destructive" and "a major cause" of the credit crisis. Robert Rubin, the former Citigroup Inc. senior counselor and Treasury secretary, said Jan. 27 the rule has done "a great deal of damage." Fair-value "provides the kind of transparency essential to restoring public confidence in U.S. markets," former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt said in an interview Wednesday. Mr. Levitt is co-chairman, along with former SEC head William Donaldson, of the Investors' Working Group, a non-partisan panel formed to recommend improvements to regulation of U.S. financial markets. Other members of the group, which met in New York yesterday, include Brooksley Born, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Bill Miller, chief investment officer of Legg Mason Capital Management Inc. "The group is deeply concerned about the apparent FASB succumbing to political pressures, which prevent U.S. investors from understanding the true obligations of U.S. financial institutions," Mr. Levitt said. Mr. Levitt is a senior advisor at buyout firm Carlyle Group and a board member at Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News. Fair-value requires companies to set values on most securities each quarter based on market prices. Wells Fargo and other banks argue the rule doesn't make sense when trading has dried up because it forces companies to write down assets to fire-sale prices. By letting banks use internal models instead of market prices and allowing them to take into account the cash flow of securities, FASB's changes could raise bank industry earnings by 20%, according to Robert Willens, a former managing director at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. who runs his own tax and accounting advisory firm in New York. Companies weighed down by mortgage-backed securities, such as New York-based Citigroup, could cut their losses by 50% to 70%, said Richard Dietrich, an accounting professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.