From the December 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Debate Ensues on Mark-to-Market Accounting

Sidebar to Melanie Waddell's Column: "Taking the Good with the Bad"

The debate about whether fair value, or mark-to-market accounting, is the best way for companies to value their assets ensued October 29 during the SEC's roundtable discussion on the topic.

"Fair value accounting is the best method to provide transparency" to investors, argued Vin Colman, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, during the panel. Any changes to mark-to-market accounting, he said, "would cause investors to lose confidence." Scott Evans, executive VP, asset management and CEO of two TIAA-CREF advisory units--like many others on the panel--agreed with Colman that "public markets are best served" by fair value accounting. While Evans, like others, conceded, however that the accounting method is "not perfect" and needs review, he said fair value is not one of the causes of the market crisis. Bill Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), disagreed, stating that he believed fair value accounting has contributed to the market upheaval. "Mark-to-market can only be applied to a small portion of the balance sheet," Isaac said, only the assets, not the liabilities. This, he said, "creates a false impression" about a bank's asset status. "Banks will have a mismatch between assets and liabilities."

The SEC is attempting to get feedback on mark-to-market accounting because the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of Act 2008 (EESA) requires the Commission to conduct a study of "mark-to-market" accounting applicable to financial institutions, including depositary institutions, and to submit a report to Congress with the findings by January 2, 2009.

Reuters reported that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told business leaders in Boston that while he doesn't want to do away with mark-to-market accounting, he is considering "modifications," and he wants to make it easier for firms to use the accounting method during the financial crisis.

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