In a move that may help steady the collapsing economy (or hasten its eventual topple into the abyss), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an independent body in charge of setting US accounting standards, is in discussions to ease so-called "mark-to-market" rules for financial institutions.
As Reuters reports, the FASB's proposed changes will allow financial institutions to determine the value of the assets on their books during inactive markets based on what the company could get for the asset in an "orderly" transaction between market participants. Companies previously had to value the asset according to its value on the current market (hence "mark-to-market), even if the demand for the asset was so low that it had only a minuscule market value.
The FASB is not considering this move entirely willingly. A congressional panel told the FASB in mid-March to take action on the mark-to-market rules, or else Congress would step in and change the rules itself. This new action by the FASB appears to be a calculated move to retain its independence and avoid more extensive changes at the hands of Congress. The stated goal of the proposed changes, of course, is to get the economy back on its feet by providing relief to companies saddled with toxic assets.
Many financiers have blamed the mark-to-market rules - also known as fair-value accounting - for much of the pain resulting from the subprime mortgage crisis. Under their theory, when the value of derivative assets (such as the now-infamous subprime mortgage derivative products) began to fall, companies faced massive devaluations when they had to peg the value of the assets to the current market conditions rather than setting the value according to the expected cash flow over the life of the product.
These devaluations resulted in plummeting stock prices, and many financial institutions faced margin calls as a result of the drop in valuation. Unable to meet the calls with the cash they had on hand, many of these companies were forced to sell the assets at fire-sale prices, which drove the market value down even further and resulted in even more devaluations because of mark-to-market.
The market for derivative products has essentially stalled now, with everyone wanting to sell and no one wanting to buy. The federal government, through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), has stepped in to guarantee and purchase the toxic assets in an attempt to assuage concerns and revive the market. The hope is that these actions will stabilize the price of these assets, thus stopping the tidal wave of financial institution devaluations.
This new accounting rule is also designed to help alleviate some of the downward pressure on company valuations by allowing the companies to set the value of assets according to what they would be during a normal, arms-length transaction. This kind of transaction would not include distressed transactions or fire-sales.
Many people, including some of the FASB's own board members, aren't convinced. They believe that the new rules will only compound the problem by allowing companies to value their assets based on speculative financial models ("mark-to-model") that may not hold true in such uncertain economic times, or even lead to fraudulent accounting.
"I don't have a lot of confidence in how people value fair value," said FASB board member Thomas Linsmeier.
What do all you GCs out there think? Will this be enough to get the economy back on its feet? Will your company benefit from these new rules? Or will this just make the temptation to cook the books too great to resist?
UPDATE: The FASB passed the proposal by a 3-2 vote.
See Also: Suspending Mark-to-Market: Bad Policy, Bad Time (NYTimes) Mark-to-Market Rule Set to Lose a Few Teeth (Reuters) More Smoke and Mirrors for Zombie Banks and their Toxic Assets (Huffington Post) FASB Unveils Relaxed Mark To Market Rules (CNBC)