A senior member of
the fraternity of pundits touchingly spoke, recently, about one effect of the
passage of time: “The older I get,” he said, “the more care and respect I have
for the phrase “not in my lifetime…’.”
There’s a grain of sense -- however frustrating it is, that decent respect for the elderly means that we have to pay attention to the superannuated, however unwilling they are to surrender their microphones. Truth to tell, there is usually an inverse relationship between advancing age and advanced intelligence -- examples would be gratuitous but readily available on request – suggesting a requirement that pontificators come with staleness warnings or prominent display of a sell-by date.
That said, there is a recent media flurry around the long-dated estimate for convergence to a single set of global accounting standards – centering on the dialog between the Financial Accounting Standards Board in the United States, responsible for GAAP in that country, and the International Accounting Standards Board, responsible for IFRS as now mandated in the European Union and adopted to varying degrees in 100+ countries around the world.
The recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh was the context for a leaders’ statement by the great and the good, calling for completion of a convergence project in 2011 – a date also targeted for the US SEC’s decision to require IFRS adoption (for a helpful review of the state of play, see Edith Orenstein’s FEI Blog.)
Meanwhile in furtherance of the accounting profession’s party line, Ernst & Young’s global chief Jim Turley is quoted (in the Going Concern blog), flogging a single set of standards as “imperative.”
The chorus for convergence is not singing in unison. No critic is more trenchant or persistent than Tom Selling (The Accounting Onion) – although in an era of commentators’ ranting for ratings, sound reasoning and intellectual rigor have limited weight.
It matters much
more that the reluctant Europeans will likely have their way. The Financial
Times reports – here – that Henri de Castries, chief of French insurance giant
AXA, views the setting of standards as “a matter of political sovereignty” and
that French finance minister Christine Lagarde has put it to EU financial
services commissioner Charlie McCreevy to “’ensure the safeguard’ of European
Which sounds entirely like dressed-up cover for another version of the European capacity for protracted refusal to yield up national autonomy – foreshadowing a de facto continuation of country-based “mark to management” accounting, however pious the leaders’ pronouncements in favor of convergence.
Not that it may matter all that much, in a financial reporting world where comprehension and comparability are already elusive.
A generation ago, one of my then-colleagues – the world’s expert on accounting for complex financial instruments – maintained a list, on which he always included one entirely fictitious product. His standard wager of a full year’s bonus was that even a knowledgeable practitioner would not find the bogus item – and he never found a taker.
In practice today, he would say that there is already so much slack, judgment and overnight obsolescence in the tough issues of recording and reporting, even within single systems – whether the best-in-class among the major countries’ local GAAP or under IFRS itself – that the prospects for true convergence at any level of detail will remain perpetually elusive.
Add in the politically-motivated local vetoes being retained by the likes of the recalcitrant French, exemplified by the spirit of M de Castries and reflected in the measurements of European progress over spans of geological time: the deeply-embedded antagonisms and resistance recall the lesson from high-school geometry, that parallel lines only converge at infinity.
If only for these purposes, how delicious it would be if Ernst & Young were AXA’s auditors in France. Armed with the opposing attitudes of their bosses, if the client’s chief financial officer and the audit engagement partner were put to a debate on convergence, which one would emerge alive?
One thing for sure – considering that the footnote in AXA’s 2008 annual report that sets out its choices and description of accounting principles already runs to sixteen pages (here): for anyone tempted to estimate a future date on which AXA might issue financial statements under a single converged set of globally-applicable accounting standards, it would be a safe bet to go with “not in our lifetime.”
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