Weil on the End of “Nothing to See Here” Accounting

Jonathan Weil of Bloomberg reports that the accounting-standards board is going to actually make companies (read: banks) price assets on their balance sheets at their fair value. What a concept!

As you may recall, the Financial Accounting Standards Board did an embarrassing one-eighty on mark-to-market accounting after facing withering pressure from banks and their pals in Congress this March.

But now FASB is doubling down on its original mark-to-market (meaning valuing assets at their market prices rather than by their original cost or modeled value) policy, the very one it reversed three months ago.

Weil does his usual good job explaining mind-numbing accounting issues in a way that doesn’t make you want to reach for your revolver. For instance, an anecdote:

Think how the saga at CIT Group Inc. might have unfolded if loans already were being marked at market values. The commercial lender, which is struggling to stay out of bankruptcy, said in a footnote to its last annual report that its loans as of Dec. 31 were worth $8.3 billion less than its balance sheet showed. The difference was greater than CIT’s reported shareholder equity. That tells you the company probably was insolvent months ago, only its book value didn’t show it.

CIT was insolvent before the end of last year, and that was relegated to a footnote in its 10-K. How about that?

That’s the obvious problem with the paper-things-over approach, you’re never truly going to get the jitters out of the system until everyone knows where the losses are. Right now, you’re just not going to know if banks are valuing their toxic assets at ninety-seven cents on the dollar, while shoveling them out the backdoor at thirty-five cents—or what.

So FASB’s ingenious approach to the dilemma of mark-to-market vs. mark-to-myth accounting is to let investors see both numbers.

So, the board devised a way to let readers of a company’s balance sheet see alternative values for loans and various other financial instruments — at cost, or fair value — without having to search through footnotes. At last week’s meeting, FASB member Tom Linsmeier called this a “very useful approach that addresses both sets of those constituents’ concerns.”

This will not satisfy the banking lobby, which doesn’t want any significant expansion of fair-value accounting. “I guess the nicest thing I can say is it’s difficult to find the good in this,” Donna Fisher, the American Bankers Association’s tax and accounting director in Washington, told me.

If the bankers don’t like it, that’s probably a good sign the FASB is doing something right.


Make no mistake about it, this is a big story. If it goes through, it could change the state-sanctioned cluelessness that’s taken hold since March, sort of like a what-we-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-us sentiment—one that reminds me of Frank Drebin holding off a crowd in front of an exploding fireworks factory, saying “Nothing to see here—please disperse!”

It’s good news for anyone interested in transparency, which ought to mean all financial reporters.

So where are all these financial reporters? Weil points out that it “has received almost no attention in the press.”

Indeed, a Factiva search brings up no other major outlets that wrote about FASB’s change of heart before Weil did on the 22nd. Only one, the Financial Times, has written about it since, in its Lex column.

Now, as Weil reports, FASB’s move is a “preliminary decision,” which won’t be made formal until at least later this month. But that’s no excuse for the press not to cover it.

Let’s hope we see some stories about the implications of this move soon.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.