Globalization, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) adoption of international standards, and the economic and financial meltdown of the Great Recession in recent years have been exerting pressure on a number of countries, including the United States, to eliminate the gap between the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and the U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
Such initiatives have consequences on the world of accounting diversity, and the standards convergence of GAAP along with the IFRS largely impacts corporate management, investors, stock markets, accounting professionals and accounting standards setters. Additionally, the convergence of accounting standards is changing the attitudes of CPAs and CFOs toward the harmonization of international accounting, affecting the quality of the international accounting standards and the efforts made toward the goal of convergence of GAAP and IFRS standards.
Financial reporting standards and requirements vary by country, which creates inconsistencies. This problem becomes more prevalent for investors when they are considering funding capital-seeking companies that follow the accounting standards and financial reporting of the country in which they are doing business.
The main difference between the GAAP and the IFRS is one of approach: The GAAP is rules-based while the IFRS is a principles-based methodology. The GAAP consists of a complex set of guidelines attempting to establish rules and criteria for any contingency, while the IFRS begins with the objectives of good reporting and then provides guidance on how the specific objective relates to a given situation.
Initiatives on Worldwide Accounting Convergence
The convergence and subsequent change of accounting and reporting standards at the international level impact a number of constituents. The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) seeks a workable solution to alleviate the existing complexity, conflict and confusion created by inconsistency and the lack of streamlined accounting standards in financial reporting.
Impact on Corporate Management
Corporate management will benefit from simpler, streamlined standards, rules and practices that apply to all countries and are followed worldwide. The change will afford corporate management the opportunity to raise capital via lower interest rates while lowering risk and the cost of doing business.
Impact on Investors
Investors will have to re-educate themselves in reading and understanding accounting reports and financial statements following the new internationally accepted standards. At the same time, the process will provide for more credible information and will be simplified without the need for conversion to the standards of the country. Further, the new standards will increase the international flow of capital.
Impact on Stock Markets
Stock markets will see a reduction in the costs that accompany entering foreign exchanges, and all markets adhering to the same rules and standards will further allow markets to compete internationally for global investment opportunities.
Impact on Accounting Professionals
The shift and convergence of the current standards to internationally accepted ones will force accounting professionals to learn the new standard, and will lead to consistency in accounting practices.
Impact on Accounting Standards Setters
The development of standards involves a number of boards and entities that make the process longer, more time consuming and frustrating for all parties involved. Once standards have converged, the actual process of developing and implementing new international standards will be simpler and will eliminate the reliance on agencies to develop and ratify a decision on any specific standard.
Convergence Pros and Cons
Arguments for the convergence are (a) renewed clarity, (b) possible simplification, (c) transparency and (d) comparability between different countries on accounting and financial reporting. This will result in an increase of capital flow and international investments, which will further reduce interest rates and lead to economic growth for a specific nation and the firms with which the country conducts business.
Timeliness and the availability of uniform information to all concerned stakeholders will also conceptually make for a smoother and more efficient process. Additionally, new safeguards will be in place to prevent another national or international economic and financial meltdown.
Arguments against accounting standards convergence are (a) the unwillingness of the different nations involved in the process to collaborate based on different cultures, ethics, standards, beliefs, types of economies, political systems, and preconceived notions for specific countries, systems and religions; and (b) the time it will take to implement a new system of accounting rules and standards across the board.
The Quality of International Accounting Standards
The Securities and Exchange Commission's goals and efforts both domestically and internationally have been to consistently pursue the achievement of fair, liquid and efficient capital markets, thus providing investors with information that is accurate, timely, comparable and reliable. One of the ways the SEC has pursued these goals is by upholding the domestic quality of financial reporting as well as encouraging the convergence of the U.S. and IFRS standards.
Research indicates that firms that apply the international standards show the following: a higher variance of net income changes, a higher change in cash flows, a significantly lower negative correlation between accruals and cash flows, a lower frequency of small positive income, a higher frequency of large negative income and a higher value relevance in accounting amounts.
Additionally, these firms have less earnings management, more timely loss recognition and more value relevance in accounting amounts compared to domestic (U.S.) firms following the GAAP. Therefore, firms adhering to the IFRS generally exhibit higher accounting quality than when they previously followed the GAAP.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board's (FASB) original mission has always been to establish the U.S. GAAP (which it oversees) and standards for accounting and financial reporting; however, the mission has been enhanced to include the convergence and harmonization of U.S. standards with international ones (IFRS).
There is some opposition to the convergence from all stakeholders involved, including accounting professionals (CPAs, auditors etc.) and corporations' top management (CFOs, CEOs). There are various reasons for such resistance to change, and some are pertinent to the accounting profession, some to corporate management and some are shared by both. The new set of standards that will be adapted will need to provide transparency and full disclosure similar to the U.S. standards, and it should also ensure broad acceptance.
Some reasons for the U.S. not embracing the standards convergence are: U.S. firms are already familiar with the existing standards; the inability or low ability to culturally relate to other countries' accounting systems; and a lack of good understanding of the international principles.
Culture in this context is defined by the FASB as "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another." Each nation and culture shares its own societal norms consisting of common characteristics, such as a value system – a broad tendency to prefer certain states of affairs over others – which is adopted by the majority of constituents.
The accounting value dimensions used to define a country's accounting system, based on the country's culture, consist of the following:
- Professionalism versus statutory control
- Uniformity versus conformity
- Conservatism versus optimism
- Secrecy versus transparency
The first two relate to authority and enforcement of accounting practice at a country level, while the last two relate to the measurement and disclosure of accounting information at a country level. Examining those dimensions and factors that impact an accounting system, it becomes evident that cultural differences have a strong impact on the accounting standards of another nation, thus complicating the standards convergence.
The GAAP have been adhered to for years, and this is the knowledge that accounting professionals are familiar with. A convergence would require learning a new system, which many professionals would be resistant to.
Another reason why U.S. companies are resistant to converging the GAAP with the IFRS is prevailing opinion that the principles-based IFRS fails to offer guidance compared to the rules-based U.S. standards As a result, U.S. accounting professionals and corporate management perceive the IFRS to be lower-quality than the GAAP.
With all of this said, the converged international accounting standards should provide for less complexity, conflict and confusion, which is created by the inconsistency and lack of streamlining that exists with two different accounting systems.
CFOs are not embracing this change because of the costs involved. There are specifically two areas that are directly impacted: a company's financial reporting and its internal control systems. Another cost involved in the transition and change to the IFRS is the public's perception of the integrity of the new converged set of standards. The SEC reporting requirements will also have to be adjusted to reflect changes of the converged system.
As previously mentioned, the major difference between GAAP and IFRS comes down to one being rules- based and the other being principles-based; this has posed a challenge in areas such as consolidation, the income statement, inventory, the earnings-per-share (EPS) calculation and development costs.
In consolidation, IFRS favors a control model whereas the U.S. GAAP prefers a risks-and-reward model. IFRS does not segregate extraordinary items in the income statement, but U.S. GAAP shows them as net income. IFRS does not allow LIFO for inventory valuation whereas the U.S. GAAP provides the option of either LIFO, average cost or FIFO. Under the IFRS the EPS calculation does not average the individual interim period calculations, but the U.S. GAAP does. Regarding developmental costs, IFRS capitalizes them if certain criteria are met while the U.S. GAAP considers them expenses.
It has been agreed to "(a) undertake a short-term project aimed at removing a variety of individual differences between U.S. GAAP and International Financial Reporting Standards' (IFRS), which include International Accounting Standards, IASs), (b) remove other differences between IFRSs and U.S. GAAP through coordination of their future work programs, (c) continue progress on the joint projects that they are undertaking, and (d) encourage their respective interpretative bodies to coordinate their activities" ("When Accounting Finally Becomes Global," The CPA Journal 78(9) 11-12). (For more details, see "GAAP and the IFRS Standards Convergence Efforts in 3 Substantial Areas.")
FASB 3 states that the Sarbanes Oxley Act's requirement of the SEC to investigate the feasibility of implementing a more principles-based approach to accounting means that the U.S. needs to continue its compliance with the SOX as part of the process of the convergence of the GAAP and IFRS standards. Both FASB and IFRS have identified short- and long-term convergence projects, including 20 reporting areas where differences have been resolved and completed. Further, the FASB provides clarification on the GAAP by categorizing in descending order of authority as shown in FASB No 5.
The Bottom Line
The appeal of convergence is based is on the following beliefs: (a) the convergence of accounting standards can best be achieved over time through the development of high quality, common standards and (b) eliminating standards on either side is counterproductive, and, instead, new common standards that improve the financial information reported to stakeholders should be developed.
Despite the research-indicated evidence of a higher accounting quality being experienced by firms that either apply the IFRS standards or have switched to them from the GAAP, the convergence process has not proven to be an easy task, mostly because of the differences in approach between the two accounting bodies.
The main issues with convergence lie with the difference in the approach of the U.S. GAAP and IFRS. The IFRS is more dynamic and is continuously being revised in response to an ever-changing financial environment. Despite documented research indicating a higher accounting quality experienced by firms that either follow the IFRS or switched to the IFRS from the GAAP, there is a doubt and concern from the FASB regarding the application and implementation of principle-based standards in the U.S. A solution may be that the IFRS should accept some FASB standards to accommodate the needs of the U.S. constituents and stakeholders.
It's anyone's guess how this convergence will evolve and impact the corporate financial accounting in the U.S. From a legal perspective, companies will be required to disclose qualitative and quantitative information about contracts with customers, including a maturity analysis for contracts extending beyond a year, as well as the inclusion of any significant judgments and changes in judgments made in applying the proposed standard to those contracts.
Maybe the answer lies in the need to consider a more in-depth study and an examination of the factors influencing the molding or development of a country's accounting system. But company boards, in an effort to best serve their investors' needs, should contribute to the convergence process by replacing old standards with the new jointly developed ones.