Shrinking crown

He has ruled the hive. But globalisation means Denny Beresford is becoming a lesser force. He talks to Roger Trapp

For a man who spends his days dealing with the technical details of accounting standards, Denny Beresford has a remarkably affable disposition. Like Sir David Tweedie, his counterpart at the Accounting Standards Board, the chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board of the United States exudes an easy charm that belies the image of the technical specialist as a dull number-cruncher.

Sure, as former academics and senior technical partners with Big Six firms, both men can mix it with lovers of the arcane intricacies of rule- setting when they have to. But their real skills lie in their ability to bring together different factions, and to present complex issues in a way that can be understood even by those not close to the subject.

Mr Beresford, whose 10-year term ends in June, does not even seem worried about the fact that his organisation is no longer so obviously the queen bee of the accountancy world as it was when he took over. Duing this period the ASB has replaced the UK's much-criticised Accounting Standards Committee, and the International Accounting Standards Committee, under the leadership of the former director-general of fair trading, Sir Bryan Carsberg, is raising its profile and becoming more involved in the debate about future standards and guidelines.

Noting that the ASB is - to a certain extent - modelled on his own organisation, Mr Beresford says: "I think when I started we pretty much had the right ideas; we had more developed standards. If everybody wanted to follow us, that was fine." Now, though, globalisation of business has brought greater interest in the international aspects of financial reporting, and FASB (pronounced "Fasbee") certainly does not believe it has all the answers. "Gradually over the past 10 years, we have tended to import good ideas from other parts of the world," he adds.

Though the ASB and IASC are in the forefront of this effort towards internationalisation, others, too, are enjoying a role. Canadian and Australian standard-setters, in particular, have made great contributions in recent years, while there is growing interest from the authorities in developing countries and emerging economies. Even so, the extent to which FASB is still seen as the home of the experts may be shown by the almost weekly visits it hosts from groups from countries as far apart as Malaysia, Poland and China. It even currently has somebody on secondment from the Chinese finance ministry.

Sharing people is just one of the ways in which the rule-makers are grappling with the complex modern business world. There is also co-operation on projects. For instance, FASB has embarked on a joint project with its Canadian counterpart on segment reporting. It has also just issued a revised standard on the issue of earnings per share, while the IASC has come up with its first standard in the area. Some may feel that this goes against the aim of - as Mr Beresford puts it - "not reinventing the wheel too many times", but it can help build a consensus.

Standard setters' activities tend to be fairly controversial wherever they are based, and being able to point to another group coming to the same conclusions can help win over doubters. Nevertheless, there is a tendency for many groups involved with accounts and financial reporting to clamour for change, only to lose some of their fervour once something starts happening. "Everybody is in favour of good financial reporting," says Mr Beresford. "But when you come down to any specific issue, people don't want to change, or don't want to go in the direction you want to."

But surely, in countries with highly developed capital markets, there is no need to have significant numbers of people (FASB has about 50 people working on various issues, compared with 10 to 12 at the ASB and four to five at the IASC) continually looking at standards?

Mr Beresford disagrees, pointing out that the business environment is constantly changing, so that what was not important can become much more so. "For example, derivatives have been around for a while, but they have become much more important over the last five to 10 years. As a result, the old standards didn't deal with them." Tax law is another area in which accounting standards have to respond to changes occurring elsewhere in the economy.

So, as he contemplates returning to the warm winters of his California childhood by starting a new career teaching at the University of Georgia, what does Mr Beresford think will have changed by the time another 10 years have passed?

Though he sees the IASC continuing to be "a helpful umbrella organisation", he does not predict that there will be only one set of standards in the world. Instead, the dominance of the United States' set of regulations and guidelines will increasingly give way to the influence of the likes of Britain's ASB. There will be even more co-operation, and more regular meetings of the type that brought Mr Beresford to London last week. But "there will continue to be some unique issues that will warrant special treatment", he says, pointing out that stock options, for instance, are more of an issue in terms of financial reporting in the US than in Britain

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