Audit Notes: WSJ on FASB; More on Auditors; the Demand Side, etc.

—I’d like to know more about the rushed retirement of the chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which The Wall Street Journal smartly gave some attention to this morning.

The chairman, Robert Herz, leaves with two years to go in his term and, a bit oddly, wasn’t available for comment. What’s more, the head of the nonprofit Financial Accounting Foundation that oversees FASB, says the group hopes to install a new chairman “in coming months,” so the departure seems quite abrupt, a “complete surprise,” in the words of a former FASB chairman quoted in the story. Hmm.

Herz appears to have been reform-minded. The Journal says he had fought hard for and won new rules requiring companies to expense stock options—a meat-and-potatoes good-governance measure.

The story hints that the departure has implications for the fight over mark-to-market accounting, but is a bit vague on what those might be:

Mr. Herz’s departure, set for Oct. 1, also comes as the body is enmeshed in a battle over a proposal to expand the use of mark-to-market accounting, which requires companies to use market prices rather than management estimates to value financial holdings.

It’s not clear if he was considered a strong advocate or not.

And the last paragraph also leaves you dangling a bit:

But he also suffered what many saw as a big defeat in the wake of the financial crisis. After Mr. Herz was browbeaten by members of Congress during a hearing on Capitol Hill over mark-to-market accounting, FASB subsequently changed some rules governing this practice.

Okay, but who said what, and what happened?

In a “Heard on the Street” column, David Reilly sheds some light on the context. This was a clear win for banks:

A new front has opened up in the war over mark-to-market accounting. Suddenly banks find themselves with an unexpected advantage in the fight over how they should value their vast holdings of financial instruments…

Mr. Herz had backed a recent proposal to expand the use of market-value accounting to banks’ loan books…Now, with Mr. Herz out of the picture, the future of the rule change may be in doubt.

Got it. A quibble, but it seems like these would have been better combined into one long story. I know that’s heresy these days, but dagnabit, it’s how I feel.

All in all, though, good work. And there seems to be plenty of room for a follow here.

—Speaking of accounting—Re:TheAuditors is running a useful post zeroing in on the role auditors played in blessing the books of some of the most execrable players of the mortgage boiler-room era. The issue is timely in the wake of recent shareholder settlements of cases involving Countrywide and New Century, both audited by KPMG. The post also harkens back to what is apparently a virtuoso bankruptcy examiner’s report on New Century by Michael J. Missal that pointed the finger squarely at the auditing firm.

—Michael Hiltzik makes a good point in linking income inequality to the $2 trillion cash hoard public companies are sitting on.

As the subheadline says:

Businesses are sitting on a record hoard of cash, but they’re not using it to hire workers or pay existing ones better wages. Broadly distributing the fruits of economic growth is the only way to sustain that growth.

Read the column and take a walk on the demand side.

—Finally, in the shocking-stat-of-the-day department, the Journal in reporting that quite reputable commercial landlords, Taubman, Vornado, etc., are walking away from properties that have sunk in value, uncorks this number:

Of the $1.4 trillion of commercial-real-estate debt coming due by the end of 2014, roughly 52% is attached to properties that are underwater, according to debt-analysis company Trepp LLC. And as the economic recovery sputters, owners of struggling properties are realizing a big property-value rebound isn’t imminent.

The great deleveraging continues. Wow.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.