Conceptually, a single set of high-quality global accounting standards sounds great: every company in every country follows the same rules and reports financial information in the same light. And with a growing number of countries adopting International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), it’s no wonder that IFRS is touted as “the” set of standards that can help us accomplish this goal. But the design and execution of this concept has presented insurmountable challenges, and the solutions being offered up leave much to be desired in terms of accomplishing the original goal … a single set of standards.
Adoption turns to endorsement. The SEC’s proposed roadmap issued in late 2008 considered adoption of IFRS, while the most recent SEC staff paper issued last May is considering an endorsement protocol, which would allow the FASB and SEC to cherry-pick the standards issued by the Internal Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and possibly supplement them with additional guidance.
Convergence becomes less converged. The FASB and IASB have been working together to converge the guidance of newly issued standards since they entered into the Norwalk agreement in 2002. However, some of the boards’ first major joint projects, including stock-based compensation and purchase accounting, resulted in substantial convergence upon issuance of the final standards—most of the guidance is the same but key differences remain. While their respective drafts of the proposed revenue recognition guidance are very close (after more than 10 years of effort, I might add), there are a number of differences of opinion in terms of other standards in the works, including leases, consolidation and insurance contracts. Speculation is that the best we’ll get here is also substantial convergence … if that.
Input adds to confusion. In early July, the SEC held a roundtable session to help evaluate the possible incorporation of IFRS into the U.S. reporting structure. The roundtable consisted of three panels of investors, smaller public companies and regulators. The result: a very mixed bag of reactions. The investor panel generally supported incorporation of IFRS but raised concerns about consistency in the application of the IASB’s principles-based standards. The panel of small public companies said the costs of such a substantial change outweighed the benefits. And then there was the regulatory panel, which ranged from cautiously supportive to very much against IFRS incorporation.
The SEC is still expected to make a decision by the end of this year about whether to incorporate IFRS and if so, how and when. Although nothing has been decided yet, it appears we are headed toward IFRS—International Financial Reporting Sometimes.