Accounting standard-setting



Accounting standard setting plays significant role in conveying users that how, when and where the financial information of a company is unveiled. As we know that there are various users of financial information so it is apparent to have diverse and conflicting interests of users, hence there rarely subsists an accounting standard which is acceptable to all the users. Major international accounting standard setters follow a "due process" approach giving companies the ability to articulate their opinions and have them taken in to consideration. However, managers pursuing the particular objectives do not desire to convey their preferences in full view of the investing public. As an alternative, they may utilize superior personal contact to political decision-makers in order to gain weight over the standard setter to alter the decision in their favour. The political nature of accounting standards has long been recognised (Zeff, 1972; Moonitz, 1974; Fogarty, 1992) and there has been continued debate over the role of government in the area of setting accounting standards. In the present essay, we will be discussing about "Accounting Standard setting is a political lobbying process, and as such offers several opportunities and means for interested parties to influence its outcomes" and respond to the given questions.

Term 'political lobbying' - in simple words:

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There is no special definition for the term "political lobbying". But it has been defined in a different way by various authors and research professionals. Following are few quotes.

According to G Woodstock lobbying means

"The deliberate attempt to influence political decisions through various forms of advocacy directed at policymakers on behalf of another person, organization or group".

"Lobbying on accounting issues has been defined as a collective term for the actions taken by interested parties to influence the rule-making body" (Sutton, 1984).

Stoddard (2007) define lobbying as:

"Activities those to seek to influence specific legislation. Political lobbying of the accounting standards setters is to try to influence accounting standards by approaching political actors instead of participating in the due process of accounting standard setting".

Lobbying forms an integral part of the due process employed in the standard-setting arena. Lobbying activity can be conducted through formal and informal channels. Morris (1986) identified formal lobbying as consisting of written submissions, position papers, questionnaire responses and membership of the standard-setting board. Informal lobbying included luncheon discussions, telephone conversations and other word-of-mouth communications. Obtaining evidence of informal lobbying activity would be difficult as such activity is often not directly observable.

Lobbyist could be any association of individuals or organizations, professional bodies usually well organized attempts to influence the decision of government or efforts to influence the votes of legislators, generally in the lobby outside a legislative. The effort may be a direct appeal to a decision maker in either the executive or legislative branches, or it may be indirect (e.g., through attempts to influence public opinion). It may include oral or written efforts or persuasion, campaign contributions, public-relations campaigns, and research supplied to legislative committees, and formal testimony before such committees.

Uncomplicatedly, we can say "political lobbying" as, there are people or some corporate powers which dominate the process of accounting or in the other words we can say that they lobby for or against a particular accounting standard to be imposed or already imposed by a standard setting body.

These powers are termed as lobbyist by Sutton (1984) and whenever lobbyist recognize that their economic interest are in danger then they intrude the standard setting process which is known as politicization of accounting standard setting.

"Accounting standard setting in Australia is a purely political lobbying process" - why?

Australian companies contain a history of lobbying the Federal Government in concern to accounting standards. The main reason of government attachment in setting accounting standards comes from corporate crumple such as HIH in Australia and Enron in the US. The formal reason argued by government in its involvement in accounting regulation is to defend public interest. However, politic and lobbying that comes from private interest is more dominant than the original efforts to defend public interest.

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To escort my point of view, I am highlighting the issue of the Australian adoption of International Accounting Standard and lobbying behaviour. The case explaining how lobbying be successful to delay adoption of IASs in Australia.

Political influences in the efficiency and effectiveness of accounting regulation.

Australian accounting regulations seem to be close to the government or political approach in its setting process. It was stated in CLERP (Corporate Law Economic Reform Program) Proposal No. 2 that:

"the ultimate objective for the setting of accounting standards in Australia should be the production of high quality accounting standards that facilitate Australian business by leading to lower costs of capital and enabling Australian companies to compete on an equal footing overseas, while also maintaining investor confidence".

As stated in the proposal: the government involvement in setting accounting standards is to reach a high quality of accounting standards and to lead the lower costs of capital.

In addition, it is expected to win in international competition. On the other hand those efforts are wound up by private interest lobbying that is more powerful and close to political process.

Interest groups lobbying had influenced in the CLERP and their reaction when it was published resulted in considerable alteration to the CLERP proposals. For example the interest groups lobbying appeared to support essential modification that Australian accounting standards should take up IASs. It came from ASX as argued by Richard Humprey (CEO of ASX) that those international standards would advantage companies and capital market. In this case ASX expected that the exercise of IASs would be a mode to protect and expand its business. ICAA also supported the adoption of IASs by saying argument that defraying the costs by sharing them with other countries and adopting international standards must have been a smart alternative. Other interest group lobbying is G100 (a body of the chief financial officers of Australia's largest corporations). They argued that they were upset with Australian standard setting and felt their views were being ignored. G100 seemed to be confidence that because they were players in a global field so that adopting the IASs in Australian accounting would formulate fiscal intellect. AASB and AARF also encouraged the changes by arguing that Australian standard setting formation should follow the U.S. or U.K. model with an independent board, adequate financial support and integrated research unit.

In contrast the supports in adoption of IASs became to be fragile when CLERP No. 1 was anticipated. It was stated in the CLERP that:

"Australian accounting standards are not understood in, and are out of step with, the major capital markets in the U.S.A., U.K. and Europe, thereby was resulting in higher cost of capital for Australian business".

Therefore one of the outcomes expected by government in its reform of accounting standards (as stated in CLERP No. 1) is to accomplish clear and relevant policy framework for the development of accounting standards to make certain they are approachable to changes in commercial practices, meet the needs of users without being excessively heavy, and improve Australia's international competitiveness. Furthermore, it is also to improve institutional arrangements for standard setting process that will make sure that the process operates in a responsive, efficient and effective manner, thereby enabling all relevant stakeholders to participate while maintaining the independence of the process. As a result CLERP No. 1 recommended that Australia should put an end to issuing its own standards and move quickly to adopt IASs issued by International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC). It should be started on 1 January 1999. The interest groups reaction was distinguish to their earlier arguments. The G100 did not have the same opinion with the date proposed for adoption of IASs or with issuing exposure drafts (ED) identical to those of the IASC. The disagreement also came from ICAA that the adoption of IASs was premature. Other interest groups that disagree to the proposal were Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), Australian Bankers' Association (ABA), accounting firms, etc. Interest groups lobbying influences again in accounting regulation. They succeeded in delaying the date of IASs adoption in Australia to January 2005. Therefore it has been proved that if government involves and controls in the setting accounting standards the process will be closer to political process and the lobbying of interest groups will influence significantly.

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Interested parties and the ways they try to influence the outcomes of the standard setting process

Interested parties:

Those having a recognizable stake in the outcome of a matter before standard setting body, but may not be directly involved in the litigation process.

According to the above stated quote, in Australia interested parties in standard setting process are:

  • Large corporate groups,
  • Focus groups (representatives of financial statement users such as investors, equity and credit analysts, credit grantors and rating agencies),
  • Major stakeholders such as the Treasury and the Treasurer, the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX), the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), the Investment and Financial Services Association (IFSA), Institutional investors (investment and superannuation fund managers), and the professional Accounting and Auditing bodies (ICAA and ASCPA).

As per the procedure of the AASB, many distinct prospects are given to interested parties to sought their views on the issues under consideration, before any AASB proposals are adopted as standards, e.g. publication of a discussion paper, publication of an exposure draft, and working paper and public hearing if necessary. Interested parties evaluate the costs and benefits of their potential involvement in the process and make a choice to involve in it or not. For example, if the industries sense that a particular accounting standard if implemented will bring a downbeat for the business of that industry then they will be lobbying against that standard. So here is the politics enters in the development of standard setting, in a nutshell it can be assumed that in addition to public interest, social justice or fair deal to stakeholders there are the powers that really play a overriding rule in the process of accounting standard setting. The best case in point of lobbying is failure of Australian government to protect their citizens from the harmful and poisonous effect of asbestos as Mitchell (2004) writes that: "Powerful asbestos lobby forced the government to implement rules in their favour and didn't allow the government to go for public interest."

Companies use a variety of lobbying strategies, including appeals to their auditors and private meetings with AASB members and staff. Significantly, however, the application of these strategies is extensively associated with the use of comment letters; companies which submit comment letters are much more likely to use other methods than companies which do not. Other findings suggest that more companies lobby during the stages of the AASB process at which public consultation takes place (e.g., exposure period of a discussion paper) than at the earlier stages of the process (e.g., agenda formation). A case study by Irene Tutticci, Keitha Dunstan, Scott Holmes on "Exposure Draft 49 Accounting for Identifiable Intangible Assets (ED49)" explains the strategies employed by lobbyists in their attempt to influence the accounting standard setters. It also elaborating how interested parties exercise their power, wealth and different strategies/approach to influence outcomes of the standard setting process.

To make more concrete backup, I would like to gain your focus on the issue of "adoption of IASC accounting standard in Australia" which delayed once for long because influence by certain lobbyist, and later the same was advocated and hail by interested parties such as ASX, IFSA etc., and succeed to made it implemented using their influence. In fact, it was their self-interest who made them support the reform. Let's select "Australian Stock Exchange (ASX)" as an interested party and perceive why they have supported the adoption of IASC:

  • The primary reasons for the ASX's initial advocacy of adopting the IASC standards were the perceived advantage to its business and a reduction in the significance of the AASB;
  • Adoption of the standards produced by the IASC to apply to all Australian companies was expected to benefit the ASX;
  • The ASX has ambitions to be the primary financial centre in the "Pacific Rim" and facilitating more listings is central to its strategy.

It is noted (Chartac, 30 Jan 1998) that "Richard Humphrey, ASX chief executive, strongly lobbied Federal Treasury late last year for the wholesale adoption of international standards."

How ASX has influence desired outcome:

As per the research done by Stoddart, in attempt to adopt IASC standards, the ASX was the primary leader of the "International Harmonisation Program" that began in 1995. ASX's influence increased when Liberal party gained power in 1996 and they achieved desired outcome. Following is the submission of the research

  • The process of "demutualising": in order to become a company listed on its own exchange and, evidencing its influence in government circles, the legislation to accomplish this was presented to Parliament in advance of other pending legislation (such as the Second Corporate Law Simplification Bill).
  • Privatisation, in itself, has led to superior co-operation among the two, as the Government wanted to maximise its returns from floating public sector operations. In return the ASX has provided some initiatives to aid non-listed companies acquire access to equity funds. In particular, the ASX has moved to assist the Government's known aims to help small to medium size enterprises by attempting to set up a "matching" service between such companies needing more capital and those investors who are in search of such prospects.
  • Further, the ASX was considered as representing the views of listed companies, those companies that control a significant share of the Australian economy and of electoral contributions.
  • The result of these activities and representations was to establish considerable rapport between the ASX and the Treasurer, to the extent that the views of ASX could be expected to be sought by the Treasurer and to be given high priority. It is not surprising that the proposals provided the ASX with substantial benefits. It gained an initial commitment to the IASC standards, without having to provide any guarantee of contributing to funding the new body.

"Accounting Standard setting is a political lobbying process, and as such offers several opportunities and means for interested parties to influence its outcomes"

Yes I do agree with the statement: while aim of regulation or adopting a new standard is public interest which means that standard setting bodies needs to make financial documents clear, comparable to the end users. Any person cannot refuse from this fact that process of regulation has forced the corporations to present all the essential information to the users which is really enabling. Simultaneously we have to believe this reality also those standard setting bodies sometimes act as a puppet of powerful lobbies of market. These influential lobbies such as large corporations, independent bodies have the adequate control to force standard setting bodies to employ laws in favour of them (as discussed above the Asbestos industry in Australia). Moreover, about the adoption of IASC in Australia that though there were numerous advantages by the adoption of it however in real who was acquiring advantages- the large corporate which desires to get listed in worldwide stock exchanges or ASX who will be pocketing big bucks as the companies from all over the world will attract and get listed here. Though users are also gain in the way that they can trade shares in the open market, the overseas companies report is clear and comparable with Australian companies which makes investment task easier for them. However advantages to large corporation and ASX are far more than other social benefits accomplished by the international harmonization of the accounting standards. It is clearly observable that ASX funded the whole process of IASC standard adoption in Australia and it persuaded the federal government for the adoption. Eventually, from the entire discussion and on the basis of various case studies, research papers and articles I can emphasize on belief that though Australia has adopted international harmonization of standard setting process it is still influenced by the political forces or political lobbies. However it is takes place at international level now. Concrete conclusion is subject to the recent changes on the trend of political lobbying with revolution in global market and information technology.


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