Goldman Sachs has snatched from its US clients the windfall chance to front-run Facebook's IPO, by limiting access to the potential of its $1.5 billion special-purpose fund to foreigners -- while professing no influence from the fuss-budgets at the SEC (here). So it seems a good time to ask:
Should regulatory compliance and accounting standards be expressed as detailed codes of precisely-drawn rules? Or as broadly-articulated principles?
There are lessons to be taken from the 43-page dress code issued by Swiss bank UBS in December (here).
The debate needs help: endless, pointless and fruitless, it feeds the conclusion that much-touted but never progressed “convergence” between international accounting standards and country-level codes in Europe, the UK and the US is as distant, elusive and unlikely as ever.
Popular reaction is that only a Swiss mentality could perpetrate the obsession at UBS, with its meticulous prescriptions on suit fabrics, cosmetic colors, collar points and hair care both facial and cranial.
Although, a dress code did appear late in my own corporate life – no less ridiculous but also raising non-trivial dissonant issues about the boundaries and effectiveness of guidance.
I was the senior member and titular head of a team based in Paris – an expatriate American amongst colleagues from the major European countries. To a man and woman, all were immensely talented and hard-working. They were also urbane, stylish and beautifully attired.
Global headquarters in the US published its requirements for the new “business casual.” It was only six single-spaced pages, compared to the fulsome 43 pages of UBS – but who’d have expected better from the sartorially challenged Americans?
It went into gruesome detail on necklines and sleeve styles and degrees of elasticity; it proscribed denim and gym gear and athletic branding; and it forbade flip-flops and open toes and footwear of any aerobic provenance.
On a given day, probably one-third of our Paris team would have been out of compliance. But, making their own individual decisions about skirt lengths, or pantyhose in July, or whether to match an Armani T-shirt with a differently-branded suit, my young charges were always impeccably turned out and appropriate for client premises and boardrooms anywhere.
For the purpose, they were capable of proper judgments under the lightest of guidance. At our annual group party our solicitor from Edinburgh was elegant in his formal tartan kilt, dirk and sporn – but for court he was always in proper dark grey suit. On warm spring days the length of limb on display among our lanky cadre of legal assistants was a substantial percentage of their average 1.8 meters – but they all donned decorous trouser suits when the visiting firemen arrived from America.
Which has what to do with the challenge of setting international accounting standards? The answer starts with the extent of mutual trust and confidence shared by a community seeking for mutually-acceptable guidance and limits.
Our Europeans rightly expressed derision and ridicule for the US code, just as most of the world feels for the pathetic efforts of UBS, because of our expectations for what was important: discipline, dedication and execution of first-quality work. Under broad principles of professionalism and good taste, their public face was virtually one of self-regulation.
Whereas if constrained by punctilious trivialities, they would have wasted both their morale and my goodwill, along with countless hours of productive time, on manipulation of the rules in rebellious search for boundaries and exceptions.
It’s no different with financial reporting standards and regulations. History teaches that bright-line limits are pushed to excess by the creative and the aggressive: the depreciation lives of mainframe computers in the 1970’s, the elastic retained ownership requirements for special-purpose entities exploited by Enron in the 1990’s, the investor limits skirted by Facebook under the counsel of Goldman Sachs.
It is the human condition that some deviance from codes of behavior is inevitable – society decides the amount, by voting its willingness to allocate resources to law enforcement and sanctions.
The range across cultures can be vast – from the de facto legalization of recreational drugs in urban America at one end, to the use of flogging in Singapore to punish the consumption of fast food on the public streets.
At the extreme, drunken driving among teen-agers could be eliminated: raise the driving age to 25 and impose capital punishment on first offenders. No less, accounting manipulations could be wiped out – by outlawing commercial transactions in more than one currency or that fail to settle for cash within 48 hours.
But the compromises required of society would never go so far. Instead, the certainty of occasional lapses and excesses is accepted. Limits are broadly defined, and enforcement mechanisms are calibrated -- for both better andworse -- in both the capital market’s use of financial information and the fashion decisions of a business office.
Judged by my experience in the latter, a global environment is far more seemly and operates with more success without the heavy hand of excess regulation.
That will soon be learned, I wager, in the halls of UBS. Whether the new leaders of the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the International Accounting Standards Board will agree is a matter of greater doubt.
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