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Reality versus Stability

Reality versus Stability

Peter Williams. Financial Director. London: Apr 2009. pg. 16, 2 pgs
Abstract (Summary)

According to the Bank of England, in general, the level of provisioning on this basis would be less subject to sharp swings in strength or weakness of economic activity than the current approach.

Accounting standard setters are under growing pressure from prudential regulators to change the rules on provisions for losses in financial institutions, as part of the bid to prevent a repeat of the financial meltdown. The issue is the subject of heated debate at the Financial Crisis Advisory Group, the high-level gathering set up by the international and the American accounting standards boards, IASB and FASB respectively, to deal with reporting issues arising from the global banking disaster.

Standard setters are wrestling with the issue of whether general purpose financial statement can include the sort of 'through-the-cycle' or 'dynamic' provisioning that may be demanded by prudential financial services regulators without diminishing the transparency of information to investors.

Provisioning models IASB chairman Sir David Tweedie told the group meeting in New York in March that there were four provisioning models:

* The current IFRS standard is based on incurred losses; there is also
* Expected provisioning;
* Dynamic provision; and
* Fair value provisioning.

The group does seem to accept that the current impaired loss model is broken because it recognises bank losses too late in the cycle. Standard setters applaud the idea of enhanced transparency in loans provision, but don't necessarily equate that to a move towards a dynamic model.

The standard setters are also determined that financial regulators shouldn't dump their problems onto financial reporting. Apart from that, there seems little consensus among standard setters on the way forward. The original idea that the issue could be put to bed as early as May now seems unlikely.

Under historic cost accounting, provisions are made for losses recognised at the balance sheet date. For instance, in relation to specific provisions the UK statement of recommended practice says, "A loan is impaired when, based on current information and events, the bank considers that the creditworthiness of a borrower has undergone a deterioration such that it no longer expects to recover the advance in full."

The accounting approach differs from the banks' implicit attitude to lending as they expect a proportion of their loan portfolios will be lost each year. These are 'expected losses' and may differ from the actual losses.

Expected loss

In contrast, the fundamental principle underpinning dynamic provisioning is that provisions are set against loans outstanding in each accounting time period in line with an estimate of longrun, expected loss. According to the Bank of England, in general, the level of provisioning on this basis would be less subject to sharp swings in strength or weakness of economic activity than the current approach. Loan losses would hit on banks' profit and loss accounts and balance sheets more smoothly than at present, because of the use of expected, rather than actual, losses.

Standard setters have always reacted adversely to the idea of smoothing and while there is support for the idea of through the- cycle provisioning for banks and other financial institutions, they will only accept the practice as long as it does not detract from the integrity of financial statements. Ideas put forward to overcome objections include economic cycle reserves - basically, building up a buffer in the good times that can be released in the lean years.

So standard setters want to contribute to sorting out the current mess, but they are telling the world's regulators that their role is to produce standards which require companies to reflect economic reality, not support financial stability.

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