Relaxing Bank Accounting Standards—A Big Mistake

“The board that sets U.S. accounting rules voted yesterday to let financial firms report higher values for some troubled assets, a controversial step likely to increase some banks’ reported earnings but also heighten suspicions that the companies are concealing problems.”[1] The vote Thursday by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is a very bad development for several reasons.

1. The FASB caved in to very ill advised pressure from Congress to rush through this dilution of accounting standards, thus undermining the independence and professionalism of the Board.

2. While we don’t know the details, because the new ruling has not actually been written yet, a key lesson from Japan’s lost decade and every other major banking crisis of the last century is that denying or hiding bank losses is a big mistake. “This behavior is corrosive: unhealthy banks either don’t lend (hoarding money to shore up reserves) or they make desperate gambles on high-risk loans and investments that could pay off big, but probably won’t pay off at all. In either case, the economy suffers further, and as it does, bank assets themselves continue to deteriorate—creating a highly destructive vicious cycle. To break this cycle, the government must force the banks to acknowledge the scale of their problems.”[2] Thus the FASB’s ruling is a step backward. It will undermine market confidence in banks further and make the resolution of the problem harder and slower.

3. If banks can record higher values for some of their assets (especially mortgages and Mortgage Banks Securities) it is much less likely that they will sell them to other investors under the Treasury’s new toxic asset purchase scheme, because they will then need to value them at the actual (lower) sale price. When assets are actually sold, mark to market accounting will still apply. One arm of government is undercutting the policies of another.

Arthur Levitt, a former chairman of the SEC said, "I was very disappointed in the process in that the independent agency buckled to the strong-armed tactics of Congress, This is a step toward the kind of opaqueness that created the economic problems that we’re enduring today."[3] “If investors believe banks are overpricing assets, "the capital markets will remain closed to major banks and other financial intermediaries for an extended period of time," the CFA Institute, an investor advisory organization, said in an analysis. The group, which opposed the change, said "investors will not be willing to commit capital to firms that hide the economic value of their assets and liabilities."[4]

This is a potentially dangerous mistake.


[1] Binyamin Appelbaum and Zachary A. Goldfarb, "Under New Accounting Rules, Toxic Assets May be Revalued", The Washington Post, April 3, 2009, Page A15.

[2] Simon Johnson, "The Quiet Coup–The Way Out", The Atlantic, May 2009.

[3] Op. cit., Appelbaum and Goldfard.

[4] Ibid.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
This entry was posted in Economics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s