Accountancy & Management: Multinationals tune up for global harmony in accounts: Even Daimler-Benz had to change methods to appease US regulators, but international standards are on the way. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
IN recent years, Daimler-Benz, the German industrial group best known for its Mercedes Benz cars, has, in common with other large companies, made great strides towards becoming a genuine global organisation.

As well as extending its operations to many overseas territories, it has listed its shares on several stock markets other than those in its native country. It was, however, in effect excluded from the largest and probably most important financial market, the New York Stock Exchange, because of the differences between German and US accounting systems.

The key divergence from Anglo-American practice is that German accounting does not claim to provide a 'true and fair' view of a company's position. Although the fourth and seventh European Community directives of the 1980s have brought some important changes to German accounts, the compromises agreed have enabled different countries to keep alive some of their longstanding traditions, as Gerhard Liener, Daimler-Benz's chief financial officer, admitted at an international conference in London last week. The result was that German accounts would still not meet the stringent criteria of the US authorities.

Such a barrier was not important for German companies until recently, when the country's growing economic difficulties demanded that they find alternative sources of finance to the traditional bank borrowing. Although the decision has not found favour with all its peers, Daimler-Benz felt the issue was of such significance that should go it alone.

In March it struck a deal with the US Securities and Exchange Commission by agreeing to a number of changes, such as segmenting its business into four units and creating an item called 'appropriated retained earnings' to serve as what Mr Liener calls 'a kind of cultural bridge between the two systems'.

Daimler-Benz could possibly have achieved its goal by taking the reciprocity route, by which national stock exchanges accept financial statements drawn up according to the rules in the companies' domestic markets. Or it could have opted for harmonisation - the process of making accounting standards generally applicable throughout the world. This is central to the work of the International Accounting Standards Committee (at whose 20th anniversary conference Mr Liener was speaking).

The first option was ruled out through the SEC taking a tougher line than EC authorities. The second was dismissed as too time- consuming.

Certainly, nobody could accuse the IASC of being revolutionary. But as David Cairns, its secretary-general, says, events do not appear to be moving as slowly as was forecast when the organisation's first chairman, Sir Henry (now Lord) Benson, was setting out its agenda.

Then, it was thought that the IASC's impact would be 'of dominating importance in the presentation of financial statements by about the year 2000'. Seven years short of the millennium, Mr Cairns says, many of Europe's leading multinational companies prepare their consolidated financial statements in accordance with international accounting standards as well as national requirements and EC directives.

In Italy, for instance, the securities regulator requires listed companies to comply with international accounting standards where there are no equivalent Italian requirements. French law enables domestic companies to adopt international standards rather than tax accounting principles in consolidated financial statements.

The UK's Accounting Standards Board has based its conceptual framework on that of the IASC and has said that there has to be good reason for a company to depart from international standards.

Even the United States - which has traditionally regarded its Generally Accepted Accounting Principles as a Bible - is considering ways of co-operating with the organisation, while the Japanese Ministry of Finance has set up a working party that will look into making its rules fit international standards by 1995.

Mr Cairns said after the board meeting that followed last week's conference that he had been greatly encouraged by the events. So far as he was aware, nobody had spoken against the principle of harmonisation.

Indeed, the board has approved seven revised standards that - along with three approved last year - will be put to the International Organisation of Securities Commissions for final approval later this year. Covering a range of issues, from inventories to foreign currency, these first 10 standards are intended to form part of core rules that will apply to the financial statements of all companies seeking to use international capital markets.

But when such as issues as goodwill are treated so differently around the world, swift agreement cannot be expected. Consequently, the IASC is enlisting further support from the business community as well as establishing better relationships with the national standard-setting bodies.

'We have got to get their views and input,' Mr Cairns said, recognising that companies were more likley to co-operate with something they had had a hand in developing than a scheme foisted upon them.

It is difficult to argue with the view ventured last week by Michael Sharpe, a partner in the Australian practice of Coopers & Lybrand and deputy chairman of the IASC, that forcing multinational companies to have a knowledge of many sets of accounts is inefficient and absurd. But it is surely just as ludicrous to see a mighty company like Daimler-Benz forced on to bended knee - and attracting the opprobrium of its counterparts - in order to gain access to the world's most powerful capital markets.

With such varying opinions to be satisfied at the same time as enhancing investor protection throughout the world, it is no wonder that Mr Cairns speaks freely of challenges.

(Photograph omitted)