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It was high time the FASB eliminated ‘extraordinary items,’ and they finally did

Companies will no longer have to call out extraordinary items on the income statement following the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s recent issuance of an accounting standards update. This change, which affects transactions that are considered both unusual and infrequent, goes into effect for fiscal periods beginning after December 15, 2015.

As someone who has been on all sides of the fence having to decide how to account for these items (I have been an auditor, CFO and investor) I must admit I am not sad to see the separate accounting of them, located after Income from Continuing Operations, and net of tax, go away. I have always felt that accounting for extraordinary items the way we’ve had to is, well, kind of extraordinary!

My reasonings for thinking this way are twofold. First, I am a strong believer in simplified accounting, and this change definitely simplifies the accounting. Second, in my view anything to do with your continuing business should be accounted for as an integrated part of your continuing business, and just because a transaction is unusual and infrequent does not give it the right to be accounted for separately.

My definition of unusual and infrequent may be different to yours, and that’s the problem—the rules that have been in place have a significant element of subjectivity to them. To me, accounting for extraordinary items has been very similar to applying soccer’s offside rule. Under that rule, you are not offside if you are not interfering with play. That’s a very subjective judgment, and your view of interfering in a situation may be different than mine. I acknowledge that I am a little extreme on this—to me if you are on the pitch, you are by definition interfering with play. That’s probably a big reason why I never became a referee!

I once had a very long debate (you could also call it an argument), with a Big 4 audit partner over whether a transaction was an extraordinary item while I was the CFO of a public company. The discussion lasted a week, and in the end the partner punted it to another partner who ended up agreeing with me. I’d like to say it was a win for me, but we had both wasted hours discussing this issue.

Adding insult to injury, I couldn’t believe it when the partner subsequently tried to bill me for the time we spent discussing it. As you can imagine, that created another discussion. I finally got the billing eliminated, but what a waste of time and effort. I am sure many others have had the same experience as me. The good news is that no one will have to again when the new rule changes come in to play, so hopefully a side benefit will be that audit costs will come down a little as well.

By the way, when this rule change goes into effect—making extraordinary items no longer necessary—US GAAP will match IFRS rules. Yes, the continuing operations section of an income statement will look more lumpy, but it will reflect better what is going on in the business, and that is what accounting should do and all we can ask it to do.

Stephen Ambler is a director at RoseRyan, where he manages the development of the firm’s “dream team” of consultants. His interim CFO stints at RoseRyan have included a social media company and the management of the financial integration process at a company acquired by Oracle. He previously held the CFO position for 13 years at Nasdaq-listed companies.

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