The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has approved a new set of rules allowing financial firms to fiddle with how big their real-estate losses are.
The change is in mark-to-market accounting rules, which say companies must value assets at prices reflecting current market conditions. But now the phrase “current market conditions” will have a big asterisk next to them. Now the assets will be valued at what they would go for in an “orderly” sale, as opposed to a forced or distressed sale. Smoke-and-mirrors has nothing on ink-and-paper.
Or, as Lewis Carrol put it in the aptly titled Through The Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is”‘ said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Those in favor of the rule change include Citigroup, Wells Fargo, members of The House and the American Bankers Association. (What a list! It is difficult to think of a group more dedicated to playing “let’s pretend” when it comes to accounting.) They argue forcing banks to mark assets to firesale prices when the markets have gone dormant has fueled the financial crisis through the writedowns, big earnings hits, damage to capital ratios, and a reduced ability to lend. In other words, if you don’t like the reality of the situation just ignore it. Ah, there’s nothing like seeing capitalism in action — the invisible hand of the marketplace being chopped off before it can distribute goods and services at the prices they would actually sell for.
Why is it that we needed strict accounting measures when these assets were inflating the banks’ balance sheets but now that they are deflating those same numbers it is time to change them?
FDIC head Sheila “The Voice of Reason” Bair seems to have her doubts as well: “Banks need to have flexibility” in valuing assets but the fair market rule shouldn’t be scrapped, [she] told a gathering of bank executives Wednesday. “There needs to be integrity in those bank balance sheets.” Wasn’t theeir lack of integrity how this all started?
Here’s my favorite line in the AP story: “Critics say the rule mandates onerous write-downs and saps investor confidence in banks.” There is no confidence left to sap, guys. Coming up with new ways to officially approve your guestimates just proves how justified the lack of confidence is.
While I am unimpressed by the FASB’s lack of a spinal cord, the true blame lies elsewhere for this one:
At a hearing last month, a House panel wrung a pledge from FASB Chairman Robert Herz to try to issue guidelines in three weeks that would relax the mark-to-market rule. The head of the House Financial Services subcommittee, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., had held out the threat of legislation to pressure the standard-setting board to take the steps.
The inmates are now officially in charge of the asylum.