IFRS against the breakdown

Here’s an extract from the lead-in to a recent speech by IASB Chair Hans Hoogervorst:

  • Against the backdrop of increased geopolitical friction, where the recent G7 meeting couldn’t even agree on a common statement, our standard-setting community provides an excellent example of what can be achieved when people from all parts of the world work together towards a common goal. In a world where much of the global infrastructure of rules and agreements is breaking down, our global accounting standards are still a source of stability. We have lots to be proud of.

I found it a little chilling how smoothly the speech referenced the “global infrastructure of rules and agreements…breaking down,” merely as a counterpoint to the “lots to be proud of” status of standard-setting. Let’s be clear: if the global infrastructure of rules and agreements truly breaks down, then looking to global accounting standards for “stability” will be about as viable as holding back an erupting volcano with cling film. And yet, Hoogervorst is hardly alone in attaching a kind of doom-porn backdrop to his pronouncements (I may have done it myself), indicating the stubbornly misplaced conviction that things will go on more or less as they are, if we grip onto the right handrails. Whatever the things we may have to be proud of, our collective power of imagination isn’t among them.

I’ve written before about this breakdown before. For example, writing here right after the 2016 election, I predicted that “there’s hardly an aspect of public discourse and policy-making that likely won’t be…degraded over the next four years” (I’ve never taken so little pleasure in being proved right). I went on:

  • As a sort of shining embodiment of (post-war globalization and the evolution toward borderlessness), IFRS might come to resemble a symptom of all that’s now being rolled back. If nothing else, I suppose it has on its side that accounting standards aren’t likely to be high on any regressive tyrant’s to-do list, given the stickiness of any existing financial reporting system and its low public visibility. But would you be surprised at any development in this global festival of regressiveness?

On that occasion I concluded (perhaps rather too colourfully, but then, I was depressed):

  • If nothing else (and perhaps there really is nothing else), we can hope that puerility in one public sphere promotes greater acuity in another. For all the reasons noted above, and many others, making risk-appropriate capital allocation decisions with reference to any kind of long-term horizon will become more challenging than ever. It demands that organizations like the IFRS Foundation attain their highest-possible level of progressive, nuanced clarity, even if this only casts them as lonely, besieged lighthouses in a poisoned global sea…

A recent column by George Monblot noted that “politicians and commentators speak a language of violence that was unthinkable a few years ago,” observing that “threat and stress in public life are likely to be self-perpetuating.” Among the means of countering this spiral, he observes:

  • After studying the success or failure of other political movements, Extinction Rebellion has developed a protocol for activism that looks like a model of good political psychology. It uses humour to deflect aggression, distributes leaflets explaining the action and apologising for the disruption, trains activists to resist provocation, and runs de-escalation workshops, teaching people to translate potential confrontations into reasoned conversation. It urges “active respect” towards everyone, including the police. By setting up people’s assemblies, it seeks to create a civic space in which other voices can be heard.

Monblot acknowledges that this all sounds like, and indeed is (or should be) only common sense. But maybe that term itself is outdated and unreliable, given how even objectively observable facts (let alone our sense of them) regularly become contentious.

My broad point is that a self-congratulatory assertion of global accounting standards as a source of stability doesn’t accomplish anything, except to keep flying the flag over one’s small piece of territory, even as the waves gradually rise and consume it. Maintaining that stability depends on rigorously identifying and working to beat back the forces of instability. For one instance, I recently argued the IASB should enter the field of sustainability reporting, despite the hurdles, because “users of IFRS-compliant financial reporting, those relying on it to allocate their resources rationally over a long-term time horizon, would benefit from the greater overall transparency that would flow from more reliable and consistent reporting on this key determinant of what a long-term time horizon looks like, if it looks like anything at all.” But more than that – the IFRS Foundation should, in my view, work to position itself as part of the aforementioned activist civic space, on the basis that its objective of promoting the use and rigorous application of its standards depends on promoting the use and rigorous application of reason itself.

Of course, such a direction would be contended and challenged. But that too would be something the IASB could take pride in…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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