Making books less binding

Demands for a common accounting language are a boost to new standard-setters, says Roger Trapp

When Sir Bryan Carsberg resigned as director-general of fair trading to head the International Accounting Standards Committee late last year, there was more than a little in-credulity. It was considered he must have been deeply dissatisfied in hi s role to entertain heading a body that seemed to exist to discuss different ac-counting policies around the world.

There is still intense speculation that Sir Bryan accepted the job because of his unhappiness with the direction that Britain's competition policy was taking under Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade. But the IASC is also making a concentrated effort to demonstrate it has a significant part to play in modern business, and so is worthy of a man who has been a member of US and British accounting standards-setting bodies and is a renowned academic in the field.

Indeed, Michael Sharpe, the senior technical partner with the Australian firm Coopers & Lybrand, who is taking over aschairman in May (about the same time Sir Bryan becomes full-time director), suggests the IASC is an organisation whose time is about to come.

According to him, Sir Bryan believes the globalisation of business means the IASC - in conjunction with the International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), the international regulating body including representatives of the British Securities and Investments Board and the US Securities and Exchange Commission - will have a similar role in financial services to the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade elsewhere.

It is a long way from original IASC duties, including setting standards for countries such as Papua New Guinea. That it should be on the point of such a role is a tribute to David Cairns, who completed 10 years as director last December.

More particularly, the IASC is being pulled out of the shadows by the need to establish a means whereby companies produce financial statements that can be understood across the globe. This is partly because companies of all sizes are becoming more international in outlook, but also because businesses in emerging countries, as well as those such as China, that were previously closed are coming to the world's capital markets to seek funds.

Because the main capital markets historically have been in New York and London, companies seeking to finance themselves by this route have tended to adopt either US or UK standards. Though similar in approach, the two codes have notable differences, for example, in the treatment of deferred tax.

However, in recent years, the concept of international ac-counting standards under which countries agree to abide by mutually acceptable principles has grown rapidly. Hong Kong and Malaysia have signed up for it, while such well-known Swiss multinationals as Nestle and Ciba-Geigy are using international standards to compile accounts.

But perhaps the biggest boost to the notion came earlier this decade, when Germany's Daimler-Benz opted for a New York Stock Exchange listing to raise fresh finance. While the strength of German banks and the economy as a whole had meant that a US or UK-style capital market was not required, international observers had always considered the country's accounting to be conservative, with the result that Daimler was allowed to be quoted in the United States. However, when the company duly reported its results under the US Financial Accounting Standards Board's rules, it revealed a different picture to the one previously assumed. The case for a system that allowed comparability and transparency was made.

Building such a system, though, requires - as Mr Sharpe acknowledges - a fundamental change of attitude. "The days have gone when something must be right because someone did it for hundreds of years," he said. The first stage is moving away from concentrating on the accounts preparers' point of view to looking at that of the users, who are, after all, more important.

If one accepts this, it is a small step to realising that it does not matter if a company is a large multinational such as Unilever trading throughout the world or a small company operating within one country. People in other countries may still want to invest in that company. To do so, they should not have to learn a whole new set of rules, says Mr Sharpe.

The problem hitherto has been the United States. Confident of its position as the biggest source of finance, the New York Stock Exchange has been able to force companies such as Daimler to abide by its rules. But the rise of other markets prepared to accept a harmonised international standard - particularly the prospect of China's tens of thousands of companies taking business to Hong Kong - appears to be bringing on a change of mind.

In a recent letter to Mr Sharpe, Dennis Beresford, chairman of FASB, accepts that "the line separating domestic from international activities is not that clear". Therefore, the organisation's obligation to its "domestic constituents" de-mands that an effort be made to narrow the range of differences between US and foreign standards.

The IASC has always insisted that it has not slavishly followed the US, where standard-setters are noted for rigour. It will be up to Sir Bryan and his colleagues to ensure that the growing willingness to harmonise means commitment to the highest standards rather than a readiness to compromise and accept the lowest common denominator.

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