What are 'Level 1 Assets'

Level 1 assets include listed stocks, bonds, funds or any assets that have a regular "mark to market" mechanism for setting a fair market value. These assets are considered to have a readily observable prices and therefore a reliable, fair market value.

Publicly traded companies must classify all of their assets based on the ease that they can be valued, with Level 1 assets being the easiest. A big part of valuing assets comes from market depth and liquidity. For developed markets, robust market activity acts as a natural price discovery mechanism. This, in turn, is a core element to market liquidity, which is a related gauge measuring a market’s ability to purchase or sell an asset without causing significant change in the asset’s price.

BREAKING DOWN 'Level 1 Assets'

The classification system including Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 assets came about as a result of Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Statement 157, which required public companies to allocate all assets based on the reliability of fair market values.

The statement went into effect for all fiscal years after 2007 and came about largely as a result of the credit market turbulence surrounding subprime mortgages and related securitized assets like asset-backed securities (ABSs). Many assets became illiquid and fair value pricing could only be done by internal estimates or other mark-to-model procedures during 2007's credit crunch. As such, regulators needed a way to inform investors about securities where value could be open to interpretation.

Level 1 assets are one way to measure the strength and reliability of an entity’s balance sheet. Because the valuation of Level 1 assets is dependable, certain businesses can enjoy incremental benefits relative to another business with fewer Level 1 assets. For instance, banks, investors and regulators look favorably – because they can rely on supplied financial statements – on an entity with a majority of assets which have a market-based valuation. For other businesses who use derivatives and other complex financial instruments, a majority of their assets fall into the Level 2 or 3 category. As such, interested parties are less comfortable with the suspect valuation of these assets.

This paradigm is best displayed during times of distress. Naturally, during a volatile market, liquidity and market depth erode, as such, many assets will not enjoy a reasonable price discovery mechanism. These assets then need to be valued by appraisals or according to a model, with these less than perfect methods, investors and creditors lose confidence in reported valuations. During periods of peak uncertainty, such as during the depths of the Great Recession, Level 3 assets are especially scrutinized – with pundits calling mark-to-model methods more like mark-to-myth.

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