Can the world live up to his standards?

Roger Trapp on how a former OFT supremo has put the spotlight on international accounting
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The Independent Online
When Sir Bryan Carsberg left the Office of Fair Trading for the little-known International Accounting Standards Committee the general reaction was disbelief that he should give up such a high-profile role to move to some backwater. Now, while it would be wrong to suggest that international accounting standards are on everybody's minds, the subject is at least being debated within professional circles. Whether Sir Bryan knew something that the rest of us did not, or whether this situation is a result of his fabled negotiating skills, is, of course, open to conjecture.

Sir Bryan, who will have an opportunity to report on progress at next week's meeting in Barcelona, himself seems surprised by developments. "It's really gone faster and better than I imagined," says the IASC's secretary-general. "I was in an optimistic mood a year ago, but it's exceeded my expectations in the meantime."

Not that things are easy. Through an agreement with the international securities body IOSCO, the date for completing the core set of accounting standards has been brought forward from June 1999 to March 1998. It is, as Sir Bryan acknowledges, "a demanding schedule" and one that he has agreed to meet only if he is given more resources by sponsors within the accounting profession. The search is on for two or three new members of staff and even a move to bigger premises from its none-too-grand offices above a shop in London's Fleet Street.

The workload has also increased: there are now four board meetings, each of which is much longer.

National authorities are offering further help. Sir Bryan sees the change of attitude?? on the part of the US Securities and Exchange Commission as particularly important. He is also encouraged by statements from European Commission officials suggesting that they are more interested in achieving harmonisation within Europe than "going their own way". Moreover, the French government is, he says, moving towards introducing a new law that would provide for giving recognition to international standards.

It is all evidence of the extent to which the IASC has become the third- biggest standard-setter - after the US and the UK.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling that this increased activity on the part of the IASC is creating confusion, even within the accounting community - a charge that the secretary-general denies. Sir Bryan - who has been a member of both the US and UK standards boards - makes it clear that he is looking to work closely with other standard-setters, especially those in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Moreover, the IASC is increasingly working with the standard-setters in an effort to reduce the confusion. There are, for instance, joint programmes with the Canadians on financial instruments and with the UK's Accounting Standards Board on provisions, while in July the IASC joined with all the leading standard-setters to publish a discussion paper on accounting for leases.

The approach seems to be winning over professional bodies in Britain at least. Earlier this year, the financial reporting committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants said it supported the underlying theme of harmonisation but stopped short of "offering unquestioning support" for adopting IASC proposals. And the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants has called for future work on UK accounting standards to try to "facilitate the convergence of accounting standards internationally".

There is one area, however, where confusion between international and domestic standards is not an issue - the developing world. Because such countries as Russia and China have little in the way of regulation, they can leapfrog the evolution of accounting rules, in much the same way that they have avoided intermediate technologies in such areas as telecommunications.

Neither Russia nor China are members of the organisation. But China is in discussions about becoming a member later this year, and next year's June board meeting will take place there, while Russia is moving in a similar direction.

Clearly, anybody who thought that Sir Bryan was simply going to disappear after voicing his criticisms of the state of British competition policy did not know their man.

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