Happy Fourth, America!

Happy Fourth! Just watched The Perfect Game, a remarkable movie based on a true story that captures the American dream at its best. America’s game — yes, baseball — played (mostly) by the rules. Immigrant* underdogs win through sheer grit, pluck, and faith against enormous odds.

*Technically speaking, the kids in this story were not yet immigrants. But some of them later played professional baseball in the United States and most likely became immigrants at that time.

 

“Right GAAP” and the move to IFRS

Whenever “risk-management” professionals characterize their prognostications as near-certain, I get nervous.  Memories of the Berlin Wall, Black-Scholes, Long-Term Capital Management, Salomon Brothers and AIG dance before my eyes.  Today’s exhibit A: Bruce Pounder’s September 2, 2010 CFO.com article, “Why the SEC Won’t Flip the IFRS Switch.”

Pounder’s “most significant” point — that “for the SEC to order a switch from future U.S. GAAP to future IFRS despite substantial differences … the SEC would have to conclude that the FASB and its standard-setting predecessors completely failed to get U.S. GAAP ‘right'” — embodies a whopping non sequitur.*  Why? Among other things, there is no “right” GAAP any more than there is “a” right spelling of “grey”. Continue reading

Watch Out for Falling Chinese Derivatives: Banks Run for Cover as China Hedges Fuel Bets

As this story from Chinese markets shows, financial derivatives are often not what they seem.  If you plan to use derivatives to hedge risks, don’t forget the counterparty risks inherent in the derivatives themselves.

Highlighting once again the risks of doing business with state-owned Chinese companies, banks and the derivatives market took another hit on September 7 when the Chinese government encouraged state-owned airlines and shippers, including China Eastern Airlines Corp., Air China Ltd. and China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co., to legally challenge their fuel derivatives contracts with foreign banks.

The contracts were used by these companies to hedge against what they expected to be a steep rise in fuel prices.  When the prices fell — as they sometimes do in a market — the companies ended up losing millions.  The losses are premised on the assumption that the companies are legally bound by the derivative contracts. This assumption should have been questioned back in March 2009 when, according to China Daily, China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) “tightened the rules” governing State-owned enterprises’ (SOEs) use of derivatives under Chinese law.  Those who did not question then are certainly doing so now.

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Did Accountants Really Let Us Down? Floyd Norris Misfires on FASB & IASB Role in Recession

Who ruined your retirement portfolio? In his September 10, 2009 New York Times’ column, Accountants Misled Us Into Crisis , Floyd Norris points the finger at standard-setting accountants at the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

Norris appears convinced that if the FASB and IASB had written the “right” accounting standards the “right” way (especially to require banks to report their assets at “fair” value), banks could not have become so weak as to threaten the financial system.  If only reality were that simple.  Four factors argue against Norris’ view. Continue reading

Barney Frank to FASB: Quit pretending to so much reality and certainty in fair value accounting!

Today, in congressional action sure to give every internal auditor and financial analyst recurring nightmares, members of the U.S. House Capital Markets Subcommittee demanded that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) demonstrate greater flexibility and speed in changing market-to-market (or “fair value”) accounting rules in the face of today’s financial industry crisis, or else. Much of the commentary came across as a congressional call for an IASB-like principles approach in place of the FASB’s detailed rules-based approach.

House Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank (D-Mass) and Capital Markets Subcommittee Chair Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa), each in his own way, stated that mark-to-market accounting must be applied differently to different companies and industries based on their respective circumstances that changed must happen now, not later after more “academic” study. In his opening statement, Kanjorski declared:
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Wachovia responds: Citigroup violated confidentiality agreement

Citigroup appears to have even less of a claim on Wachovia than I previously thought, on the basis of transaction documents posted late Sunday night by the New York Times (copy below the jump). The documents include an affidavit of Wachovia CEO Robert Steele and the Wachovia-Wells Fargo merger agreement. It appears, from these documents and others filed earlier by Citigroup, that if there’s a bad corporate citizen in this game, it’s Citigroup. Continue reading

Wachovia deal says “fair value” is higher when the government stays away

Great news just in from Wachovia: It’s “fair value” rose by an astonishing 750 percent overnight, to $15.1 billion from $2.16 billion. That’s right. Yesterday at this time, Wachovia was supposedly worth only $2.16 billion — in the eyes of government regulators who were trying to force it into an arranged marriage with Citigroup. Turns out that the regulators were wrong. The market had other ideas.

Congress take note: regulators can get it wrong on both ends — high and low. Lucky for Wachovia’s shareholders — and the financial markets — Wachovia’s board didn’t listen. Best to let the market do its work and get out of the way.

Speaking of which, what about U.S. GAAP’s “fair value” accounting regime? How much was Wachovia really worth 24 hours ago? Either U.S. GAAP was lying then or it’s lying now. What’s the point of having companies report assets at “fair value” when fair value is so context-dependent and fluctuates by 750% in a matter of hours? Fair value makes sense in some contexts, particularly in highly liquid markets. In others, it is likely to be materially misleading.

Carl Levin’s Tax Tempest in a Teapot: Dividend abuse?

Sex abuse has so dominated the headlines of late that I was beginning to miss stories about tax abuse. But tax abuse aficionados now have something to chatter about thanks to the justifiably obscure Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (“PSIHSGA”).  Apparently for political effect, PSIHSGA Chair Carl Levin timed for September 11, 2008 this shocking (not) exposé on dividend abuse. Continue reading

SEC blotter: Former KBR CEO pleads in Nigerian bribery case

Yesterday, the SEC charged former Kellogg, Brown & Root, Inc. (KBR) executive Albert Jackson Stanley with participating in a “scheme” to win more than $6 billion in construction contracts by bribing Nigerian government officials. According to the SEC, “The contracts were awarded to a four-company joint venture of which The M.W. Kellogg Company, and later KBR, was a member.

The SEC’s complaint in the case — filed at Houston, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas — can be accessed here and the SEC’s press release, here. Continue reading

Why does the FASB hide its audio archives?

When it comes to understanding the rationale of board or committee decisions and holding board members accountable, nothing beats a video or audio recording of the meeting. Meeting minutes, by contrast, are notorious for doing more to obfuscate and obscure than inform. Continue reading