IFRS in the US – still breathing?

When I started my first IFRS blog some six years ago, in the thick of the Canadian transition process, the debate about adopting IFRS in the US was active and often heated, prompting a constant stream of online ranting…

I once quoted Professor David Albrecht, a particularly active figure in the field, as follows: “”As I blogged yesterday, any nation that cedes control over some aspect of its economy to an extra-national body is incredibly stupid. Today I add that it is brainless, dazed, deficient, dense, dim, doltish, dopey, dull, dumb, foolish, futile, gullible, half-baked, half-witted, idiotic, ill-advised, imbecilic, inane, indiscreet, insensate, irrelevant, laughable, ludicrous, meaningless, mindless, moronic, naive, nonsensical, obtuse, out to lunch, pointless, puerile, rash, senseless, shortsighted, simple, simpleminded, slow, sluggish, stolid, stupefied, thick, thick-headed, trivial, unintelligent, unthinking, and witless (synonyms supplied by thesaurus.com).” On another occasion, Albrecht linked to an Accountancy Age article reporting “the evidence is mounting that a number of governments believe that switching to the global guidelines may have been too hasty,” and was thus inspired to ask: “IFRS, IFRS, whither are thou? Art thou the coming of a single set of global accounting standards? Or art thou languishing in a coffin, relegated to the dustbin of history?”

I pointed out at the time that if this was a coffin merely placed inside a dustbin, as it appears, then any able vampire could escape from that as soon as the sun went down! And so it did – IFRS outside the US may not yet be all-conquering, but it hardly seems to be tottering. Certainly not as much as Albrecht’s own blog which, deprived of the motivational fuel of a potentially imminent IFRS invasion, has all but embraced its own coffin/dustbin (only three entries in 2014 so far, one of them devoted to his attempt to create an accounting knock knock joke (“Deb who? Debits on the left, credits on the right”)). And he’s not the only one. People used to ask me about the topic fairly regularly, but I can’t remember the last time it came up.

Still, the SEC has never formally dropped the idea, and a recent column on the Financial Executives International Daily website reported on a speech by SEC Chief Accountant Jim Schnurr, as follows:

  • “Schnurr described three possible alternative actions with respect to the use of IFRS by U.S. public companies that have been considered in that past:
  1. “Turning the keys over to the IASB” (the International Accounting Standards Board),
  2. Providing registrants the option to file IFRS financial statements, and
  3. The “condorsement” approach suggested by his predecessor, Paul Beswick, (i.e., in which FASB would endorse new IFRS standards and incorporate them into U.S. GAAP).
  • “I’m hoping that in the not too distant future I could go public with another possible alternative,” said Schnurr, that “we would like to get feedback on.” However, he indicated a precursor to floating his new IFRS alternative was for him to complete the rounds of dialogue he is currently having with SEC Chair Mary Jo White and the other four SEC commissioners.”

Reporting on this, the writer Edith Orenstein speculated that “Schnurr’s fourth alternative may be to permit – but not require (although an interesting twist would be if the proposal is indeed to require, after a sufficient period of time for companies, auditors and investors to get up to speed on) – supplemental provision of IFRS financial statements and related footnotes.” She comments: “The main reason could be to promote IFRS experience and education, through means of the SEC’s public filing platform. and then, once the comparable IFRS information has been made widely available, decide whether investors find the information valuable, and consider cost-benefits to preparers, auditors and others. However, the potential downside of any such ‘experiment’ with supplemental provision of IFRS material, as some may view it, would be the incurrence of costs with what many may view as limited to no benefit, particularly if some years down the road, the SEC were to make a subsequent decision to disallow the inclusion of such supplemental information.” As she notes, any proposal in this regard would have to consider the nature and scope of the “safe harbors” attaching to the information, among many other things.

The following week, speaking to the 2014 AICPA National Conference on Current SEC and PCAOB Developments, Schnurr seemed to confirm the general accuracy of her speculation, although without going into great detail: “…we understand that some domestic issuers may, now or in the near future, prepare IFRS-based financial information in addition to the U.S. GAAP based information that they use for purposes of SEC filings.  However, regulatory constraints may dissuade some issuers from providing this information, as current SEC rules would consider IFRS-based information to be a “non-GAAP” financial measure for a domestic issuer.   Should IFRS-based information continue to be considered “non-GAAP” financial measures subject to the requirements for such measures, or should it be thought of differently?  Under this line of thinking, issuers that do not believe IFRS-based information would be beneficial to investors would not be forced to undertake what we understand to be, in some cases, significant implementation costs.”

Well, it all seems awfully abstract and lifeless by now. As Schnurr himself noted, according to the article: “There does not appear to be what I call a significant demand — nobody pounding the table from what I can tell — that the U.S. investor is looking for a significant increase (in) the use of IFRS by U.S. registrants.” This being the case, from this distance it’s hard to see how a second level of permitted but not required IFRS-related disclosures would ever gain much traction (the interviewees in a recent Journal of Accountancy article shared this impression). If so, the likelihood of these disclosures subsequently becoming mandatory seems remote at best, given that affected US issuers would thus have to prepare two sets of numbers, almost certainly a reason for furious table-pounding (although this would be an ironic reversal from the pre-IFRS days, when Canadian entities reporting in the US were constantly exercised by the cost and effort of such a burden).

Basically, it looks like US market participants are a long way away from collectively wanting to buy what IFRS is selling; and whether you ascribe that reluctance to actually knowing what’s good for them, or (if that’s not the case) to culture, or arrogance, or just the weird neurosis that seems to affect the US approach to most other major questions, it seems unlikely they can be coaxed or manipulated into it in the near future. One might admire Schnurr’s tenacity, but his “fourth alternative” will surely be flirting with the coffin/dustbin long before IFRS itself…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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