Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Group says accounting did not cause credit crisis
By STEPHEN BERNARD The Associated Press Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 1:40 PM NEW YORK -- An international financial advisory group said Tuesday that accounting rules were not the cause of the recent credit crisis. The Financial Crisis Advisory Group also voiced concern about recent regulatory pressure that led to the easing of guidelines about how banks value risky assets that were at the center of the crisis. In a report released Tuesday, the group said "accounting standards were not a root cause of the financial crisis," but did acknowledge that the weakness in the application of rules reduced credibility in financial reporting. At the heart of the debate over accounting standards is a rule determining how banks can value assets such as mortgage-backed securities. In a split vote in early April, the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board approved a change to the rule, allowing financial firms to value assets at what they would go for in an "orderly" sale, as opposed to a forced or distressed sale. The two dissenting voters on the five-member board said at that time that FASB was pressured by Congress to make the change. The advisory group said in the report Tuesday that regulators should not be able to dictate specific rules that are established by two main accounting boards that oversee standards, FASB in the U.S. and the International Accounting Standards Board overseas. "While it is appropriate for public authorities to voice their concerns and give input to standard setters, in doing so they should not seek to prescribe specific standard-setting outcomes," the group wrote in the report. Critics had contended the rule made the current financial crisis worse by forcing banks to heavily slash the value of assets such as mortgage-backed securities that were severely depressed by market conditions - conditions where the sale of those assets would only be completed at distressed prices because the market was not functioning properly. While acknowledging that market turmoil was readily apparent through the valuing of certain assets, the advisory group said the rules governing how to value those assets - known as mark-to-market, or fair value, accounting - did not intensify the credit crisis. "Proponents of fair value accounting do not deny that indeed mark-to-market accounting shows the fluctuations of the market, but they maintain that these cycles are a fact of life and that the use of fair value accounting does not exacerbate these cycles," the report said. The value of mortgage-backed securities, which are bonds backed by home loans, and other risky investment products fell sharply beginning in 2007 as the housing market deteriorated and the economy faltered. Banks were required, because of the accounting rules, to record hundreds of billions of dollars in non-cash charges to reflect the waning value of those investments sitting on their balance sheets. As their value fell, banks became more reluctant to sell the assets at a loss, only further weakening their prices and leading to more write-downs. Only recently have write-downs began to slow. An estimated $2 trillion in soured assets is sitting on banks' books. Easing or even eliminating that rule, as some industry groups and politicians have proposed, could remove transparency for investors, warned the advisory group that is co-chaired by Harvey Goldschmid, a former commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Hans Hoogervorst, chairman of the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets.