A Rewrite For Write-Downs?

As as move to reverse of mark-to-market accounting rules was rejected by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox the door remains open to refining the rules' application.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, in rejecting a reversal of mark-to-market accounting rules, left the door open to refining the rules' application.

Among the possible changes are requiring smaller write-downs on distressed assets, allowing more flexibility in valuing assets that have no buyers and easing the impact of fair-value accounting on regulatory capital.

While many bankers want mark-to-market accounting scrapped-blaming it for excessive write-downs and ultimately causing some institutions to fail-some say such refinements would still be an improvement.

"Additional guidance is necessary, because the current circumstances leave room for lots of disagreement among very well-intentioned and well-educated people," said Donald van Deventer, the chief executive of Kamakura & Co., a consulting firm in Honolulu.

Cox said in a speech last week that fair-value accounting was "a meaningful and transparent measure of an investment," an apparent sign the agency would recommend retaining mark-to-market accounting when it issues a report on the standard Jan. 2. But Cox also said more clarity was needed in the standard's application "in inactive or illiquid markets," which gave critics hope that changes are coming.

A clear change coveted by the industry is flexibility in what factors accountants use to write an asset down to fair value, known as an "other than temporary impairment" charge.

Under current standards set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, an asset's value can decline even further than its underlying performance.

For example, a mortgage-related security bought initially at $100 could lose $20 in value because of payment defaults from borrowers in the mortgage pools that back the asset. Under fair-value accounting, the value could fall down much further, to something like $40, due to other broad factors in the market, such as the lack of investors buying up similar securities.

Such a scenario has played out frequently during the financial crisis, but observers argue mark-to-market rules could be changed to limit declines solely to credit factors-and not take into account broader market factors that fluctuate rapidly. If regulators allowed that, the $100 security would still be worth $80, a much less significant hit to financial institutions that own it.

"Once you write that asset down to $40, you can't write it back up. The only way is to sell it," said Sydney Garmong, a Washington-based executive for Crowe Horwath, an accounting and consulting firm. "Some have said if the impairment could only be for the credit component, then that may be a better model. If you have to take an impairment charge, the charge wouldn't have to represent the entire decline in fair value.

The SEC has already taken a step toward making that change. In mid-October the agency called on FASB to relax the requirements for what defines an "other than temporary impairment" in certain securities. But the board has yet to respond, worrying industry representatives who want the changes in place before banks report year-end earnings.

"What's really needed is speed," said Donna Fisher, a senior vice president of tax and accounting at the American Bankers Association.

Industry representatives have also been pushing to allow more flexibility in how banks value securities when there is no market for them. Institutions would prefer using internal models of what a security's resale value is, rather than simply using the price of other similar assets.

"What the industry is looking for, if it can't totally eliminate mark-to-market accounting, is clarity when there's no market," said Kip Weissman, a partner at Luse Gorman Pomerenk & Schick PC and a former attorney at the SEC. "You have these securities that obviously had value, but if there is no market for them, under the rules do you have to absolutely mark them to zero?"

The SEC recommended in September that companies be allowed to use their own models more. But observers said that FASB, in carrying out the recommendation, did not deliver the message clearly enough, leading to ambiguity.

It is still "up to the bank and its audit firm to have a discussion about whether" a valuation "is reasonable or it is not," said Fisher. If banks must continue to mark securities "down to that lowest possible value, it is terribly going to overstate losses," she said.