April 14, 2008
April 14, 2008
Martin Hutchinson is the author of “Great Conservatives” (Academica Press, 2005) — details can be found on the Web site http://www.greatconservatives.com
Fair value accounting, by which debt and equity securities on a company’s balance sheet are “marked to market” — written up or down to their market price — has been hyped by accountants and regulators as the epitome of modern financial reporting, enabling investors to gain a completely true picture of their investment’s financial position. Indeed, Gerald White of the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute, speaking at an American Enterprise Institute conference Tuesday, believes it should be applied to all items on the balance sheet, not just financial instruments. There is just one problem: in the turbulence of the last nine months it has completely failed to work, and has indeed shown itself to be pro-cyclical, encouraging economically foolish behavior in both up and down cycles.
As someone who only thinks about accounting once a decade or so, I wasn’t really aware that much had changed from my business school days in the early 1970s. At that time, the values of assets on the balance sheet didn’t move much. Everything the company owned was dumped on the balance sheet at cost price and stayed there for decades while the world turned. The only exception was when the company held bonds or shares that had declined catastrophically in value (the occasional wobble was ignored) in which case they were declared “impaired” and their value written down. The fun for analysts was in finding companies whose downtown real estate was still held on the books at its value of 1926, when it had been bought, since there just could be a little teensy-weensy asset profit that might be unlocked from the company if one could figure out how.
This attitude to values was maintained through the inflation-accounting period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assets were assumed to be held for the long term, so buildings were written up by the movement in the consumer price index between the asset’s purchase date and the balance sheet date. US and British accounts differed in their approach to inflation accounting, which may have been one reason why it was abandoned fairly quickly once inflation returned to single digits, but neither system attempted to “mark to market.”
The “mark to market” approach had been used since 1940 by US investment banks, holders of large numbers of tradable securities, who needed to convince their regulators that their capital was adequate. It was not however used by British merchant banks, equally holders of substantial amounts of tradable securities. Only a small portion of merchant bank assets was held in a “trading account.” The remainder was held on a “back book” investment account and valued at cost. In this way, merchant banks were able to manage earnings very effectively; generally they built up large “hidden reserves” in good years which were amortized into earnings in years of unexpected dearth, so that the overall picture was smoothened. The result was to increase the confidence of the market in each merchant bank; people assumed that 200-year-old institutions had accumulated enough “hidden reserves” and undervalued real estate to smooth out any problems that might arise.
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