Don't get our intangibles in a twist, Sir David

BUNHILL
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The Independent Online
COULD it be that Professor Sir David Tweedie, chairman of the Accounting Standards Board, is at risk of losing some goodwill? I do so hope not.

The ASB has been fussing around for ages now on how best to account for goodwill, and the feeling is that when - at last - the ASB's new guidelines are published this summer, they willl make better news for accountants than for those who produce the figures with which they work.

Everyone agrees that goodwill needs tidying up. As long as 13 years ago, the financial editor of this very newspaper wrote in his book A to Z Guide to Money that goodwill is "at best a highly nebulous notion in the business world, and at worst a ghost".

Goodwill - let's call it the difference between the value of tangible assets and the overall worth of a business - must be amortised by the purchaser, or written off against reserves. Neither option appeals to a growing number of businesses these days. The reason? That in the 13 years since William Kay set down his wisdom, the proportion of the overall value of UK acquisitions attributable to goodwill has more than trebled from around 20 per cent to about 70 per cent.

The change is highlighted by the current acquisition of the Reckitt & Colman food and drinks business by Unilever and Bass. Little of the £250m price covers tangibles such as factories in Norwich: the prize is the intangibles such as the Colman's Mustard and Robinson's Barley Water trademarks. Such brands to be held forever - profitably.

Ah, says ASB, that only goes to show that trademarks are indeed "priceless". Therefore there cannot be a market in them. Oh, and because trademarks are not finite they cannot be amortised.

The board now seems near to recommending that intangibles such as patents (often less valuable than trademarks, but with a definite shelf-life) should be identified separately from goodwill, which is fine, but that trademarks should remain subsumed. That may make life simpler for accountants, but it is no use to executives who have to justify the huge sums involved.

Could there be any meeting of minds? Yes, says the appropriately named Raymond Perrier, a brand specialist at Interbrand. "Let's not have two categories, tangibles and goodwill, but three. Let's split out from goodwill 'identifiable intangibles' such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, anything to which there is a legal title." There would be no trouble accounting for intangibles, which business does every day. But, he adds: "There's no accounting for accountants."

POLITICAL correctness takes a gender-bending turn at the New York bar. Creditors of a real-estate publisher, Quest Magazines, are asked to contact the offices of Robinson, Silberman, Pearce, Aronsohn & Berman, where counsel for Quest is "Susan P Johnston, Esq."

Naming confusion

SHOULD communications, like charity, begin at home? Confusion seems likely in the corporate communications business, with a decision by the British Association of Industrial Editors to rename itself from this weekend the British Association of Communicators in Business (BACB).

And why not? Well, there's already another mob, IACB, or the International Association of Business Communicators. While most of the latter's members are in North America, there is also an active UK chapter.

"We're not fussed," is the easygoing reaction of Peter Hill, the IACB's UK president. "We're an international network, and BAIE - sorry, BACB - isn't. I wouldn't rule out working together, where appropriate."

I trust this bonhomie between the two survives the bank holiday: the BAIE/BACB (still with me?) should sober up some time today after its annual Editing for Industry awards beano in Harrogate, and I caught the IACB's Hill in convivial mood at his presidential dinner in London this weekend. Mind you, Hill has bigger things to worry about. His day job is head of communications at Lloyd's of London.

SHADOW Chancellor Gordon Brown is due to address a conference of the public service union Unison in Scarborough next Friday - if the stewards let him in, that is.

It's nothing to do with the union's rejection of the Clause Four rewrite. The hunky Brown was coming out of the party conference that endorsed the measure at Central Hall, West- minster, last weekend when a girl asked him for an autograph. Reaching into his pocket for something to write on, Brown found a card, which he duly signed and handed over - only to find later that the card was his invitation to the celebratory party across the way in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.

Whether or not the girl got to the party, I do not know - but Brown did not. Let's hope he doesn't give away a Budget speech one day.

Unwelcome reunion

SHOULD Charles Schwab, the giant US retail stockbroker, succeed in taking over ShareLink, the troubled British private stockbroking operation, the Americans plan to keep two deadly rivals apart.

ShareLink's David Jones and Neil Stapley, Schwab's UK boss, were at one another's throats when Stapley ran NatWest's stockbroking business. If the bid goes through, they of course will be bosom buddies - officially.

But it just so happens that Jones will head the combined UK business from ShareLink's offices in Birmingham, while Stapley will remain in his London lair expanding Schwab's business in Europe.

THE first Earl Ferrers was the last nobleman to be hanged (he killed a steward in argument over money). Now there is a suggestion that the political equivalent should happen to the present earl.

Ventures, a new magazine for entrepreneurs, wants John Major to dump the old boy after a survey of 500 small-firm persons found that fewer than one in 10 had ever heard of him, or of the Ministry for Small Firms and Consumer Affairs over which he is rumoured to preside.

But Ventures editor Graham Parker should beware elderly parties bearing horsewhips. The present earl once thumped with his walking stick an intruder who had broken into his Queen Anne house in Suffolk - when he was Home Office minister in charge of the police.

Historical accuracy goes down the tube

RELAX, it's one of ours. Having had to explain last week to a thrusting young executive (who devises and markets college courses) what is meant by the initials "VE" and "VJ" as in "Day", I'm now concerned about corporate brochure designers - a fine body of men and women, to be sure, but one whose sense of history is apt to wander, if the London Underground VE Celebrations commemorative journey planner is anything to go by.

One section, "London At War", speaks of "the worst times of the 1940- 41 blitz when London endured nightly bomb attacks". Quite so, but surely not from the only aircraft pictured, which are British. Unless my binoculars deceive me, they're Fairey Battles - a deathtrap that aviation writer Richard Townshend Bickers describes as "a turkey in air combat . . . casualties were catastrophic". Is there room among the pony-tails in our centres of design for a token old fart who remembers such stuff?

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