Fair Value Accounting Is Not Root of All Evil
Today's economic environment puts the question of the need for confidence, trust and stability during uncertainty in the markets to the forefront. Most everyone agrees that we are going through an economic bubble burst. We have had many before. The dot com bust was not that long ago for most of us. But it seems to me that we have found ourselves infused in another layer of distrust in timely and accurate information by those reporting financial results. Yet we now blame the accounting rules for that.
Has it really been that long ago that we have forgotten the Enron's and WorldCom's that required putting new standards in place? I say, yes, many have moved on. But ask those innocent people still devastated by those financial catastrophes, depleted of their investments, life savings and retirements, if they would have preferred more a transparent and clearer understanding of the financial conditions of those companies. Perhaps we can explain to them that it was there somewhere in the footnotes and they should have known better. "It should have been more transparent to us and those in charge of watching" is what I think many would say today. I have personally spoken to some of those victims and still feel their pain. They will tell you that these were not paper losses, they were very real economic losses.
How soon we have forgotten those less fortunate, while most of us prospered during the real estate boom that followed. We were so occupied counting our paper wealth, built mostly on our inflated real estate holdings, maximizing our consumer debt leverage with home equity loans and grinning at our increasing 401(k) fair market value retirement balances. Times were good for most of us and fair value was good to most of us. We didn't complain.
Although we improve standards every year and make improvements, we can't pretend our way out of this mess either. Fair value accounting was not designed to work best in today's markets but is not the root of all evil in the financial world today. Bad choices and miscalculated bets by some of the brightest people play a large part in this. What gets me is that everyone wants the solution to the problem, just wants it over, but everyone is pointing the finger at someone else. Who is really accountable for the decisions that have been made in the past?
Having been part of the standard-setting process for the last seven years, I have been there to help balance the needs of both investors and the preparers. The FASB has a very transparent and open process that balances these views. Although all of us may not agree on the eventual outcomes, I cannot speak more highly of the board and staff at FASB and the work that has been done to improve financial reporting for the best interests of all of us during both the prosperous and challenging times for U.S. companies in all sectors of our economy.
Then what do we do when times are not so good? We blame the same rules that helped us get here. I have to say that I don't embrace double standards much.
Although we may be able to find imperfections with the accounting rules and can always seek to improve them as issues evolve, we have a far greater degree of transparency now than we have ever had. The very public and open process does strive for transparency and to balance the needs of all interested parties.
I hear everyone demanding and embracing this, but I don't quite see us all on the same page yet. We need this more than ever from everyone associated with today's financial crisis.
Good rule or bad rule? Once again, our perspective depends on whether you are buying or selling. But before times approach normality again, it is too clear to me that we need to close this gap between them fast.
Scott M. Waite
Chief Financial Officer
Patelco Credit Union