Sir Bryan takes on the world

Why do different countries have different accountancy rules? Roger Trapp meets the former fair trading chief who aims to bring in a single international system
A couple of months into his job as secretary-general of the International Accounting Standards Committee, Sir Bryan Carsberg is in expansive form. He gave up being Director General of Fair Trading for a position that few outside the accountancy profession have heard of - but he insists the move was not born of frustration at the Government's attitude to competition. It is clear he is now in his natural milieu.

Accounting is his "intellectual tool-bag", he says, and accordingly he is apt to be more interested in problem-solving than negotiations. He is aware that a job like this one requires more than a little discussion, but there is also "a strong element of analysis". He says: "I still believe that good analysis will win some points."

Few areas need as much analysis or negotiation as international accounting standards. Sir Bryan, an accountancy academic who has had spells at both the US and British standard-setting bodies, is the first to admit that the general public probably thinks there is one set of accounting rules the world over.

"It suggests we're not very good at it yet," he says with a chuckle, adding that it is not as if there are, say, different rules of physics in Germany.

More seriously, the divergence of approaches "actually brings accounting into disrepute". The Daimler-Benz episode, in which what appeared to be a healthy profit under seemingly conservative German accounting rules became something quite different when the industrial giant was subjected to US scrutiny, opened people's eyes.

With cross-border shareholdings becoming common, it is essential that investors understand the basis on which reports are prepared. "And the only way we'll solve the problem," says Sir Bryan, "is if we all do it the same way."

Over the past decade the London-based IASC has made great strides in encouraging the development of international accounting standards. More than 250 multinational companies adopt them - for example, Greek law requires companies to comply with the standards, and emerging nations such as Cambodia are seeking the organisation's guidance in developing rules.

But hitherto international standards have been regarded as something of an irrelevance to the leading nations. For companies looking to raise funds on the international capital markets, there are really only two systems - British and US - and they adopt one or other according to inclination or expedient. As far as Sir Bryan is concerned, this cannot continue. "It's just not acceptable for a company in France or Germany to say, we'll let the UK or US write the rules for us."

For a while it was thought that the European Commission would attempt to enter the standard-setting arena. But recent developments suggest that the field will be left to the IASC. The organisation's hand has been further strengthened by an agreement this month with the securities organisation Losco on a programme for developing a core set of international standards. Sir Bryan sees it as a milestone that will enable his group to urge companies to adopt the rules sooner rather than later.

It will also change the shape of the body, currently housed in run-of- the-mill offices in Fleet Street. Sir Bryan is seeking more money and staff to help him to build on this recent achievement. He envisages increasing the pounds 1.1m annual budget, - largely funded by the profession and multinational companies - by about 50 per cent. Sir Bryan, who has three professional colleagues and about six support staff, is also looking to employ another three or four technically qualified personnel.

The task looks onerous. Sir Bryan puts great emphasis on communication - oral rather than written - with all those involved and is keen to build links in France and Germany as a way of demonstrating that the organisation is genuinely international.

Thanks to his background, Sir Bryan knows many of the individuals involved with the national standard-setters at Britain's ASB and the US FASB, but it will be interesting to see what happens if the balance of power shifts and he moves from heading a somewhat fringe body to being a genuine force in international accounting.

It is a long way from seeking to co-ordinate agendas so that the same issues are examined at much the same time to the aim of having just one body setting out one set of accounting rules for the whole world. Sir Bryan, who is 56, does not expect to see this achieved in his working lifetime - but he would certainly have an answer to those who wondered why he gave up a key job at the OFT if he is even close by the time he hands on the baton.