A move towards Principles Based Accounting Standards

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The attempted move toward principles-based accounting standards is most likely rooted in the move toward convergence between FASB standards and IASB standards, although the role of other nations in the G4+1 (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) should not be discounted. However, of more immediate importance is that the Sarbanes-Oxley bill required the SEC to draft a report on principles-based accounting standards that would better align the interests of management and auditors with investors. We will define principles-based standards as those rooted in economically relevant criteria which provide a high degree of comparability among firms and are useful in terms of either predicting future cash flows or evaluating firm performance. Notice the relationship of principles-based standards to finite and rigid uniformity (Chapter 9) and the conceptual framework (Chapter 7).

The most complete statement about principles based standards appeared in the recent SEC report (hereinafter "the report"). [1] The report mentions three different types of standards.

The first is a principles-only approach in which limited guidance is given for applying the standard. Examples mentioned in the report are impairment of long-lived assets prior to SFAS No. 121 and historical cost depreciation. Impairment does not provide a good example because no extant ARB, APBO, or FASB standard explicitly or even implicitly covers this topic hence no guideline can exist absent an applicable rule or even a well formulated "principle" stemming from accounting practice. Historical cost depreciation provides a better example of a principles-only standard. Paragraph 5 of Chapter 9 of ARB 43 mentions the now famous "systematic and rational" description of historical cost depreciation but no further guidance is provided.

Of more importance is the rules-based approach to standard setting. Rules-based standards often provide "bright-lines" tests which can easily be avoided. As a result, representational faithfulness may be avoided and a low degree of comparability will often result. Numerous exceptions may also result. The classic example of a rule-based standard is provided by lease accounting (Chapter 16). However, a G4+1 report on lease accounting (pp. 603-605) would transform lease accounting into a true principles-based standard.

The report uses the term objectives-oriented standards for a true principles-based approach. Objectives-oriented standards, according to the report, would not use bright-line tests and would have very few exceptions. [2] They would also provide adequate guidelines for implementation but they would still require the use of judgment by accountants and auditors. Standards can never cover every possible situation and contingency so judgment would be needed to best capture the underlying economic reality. There is thus a gray area between providing enough detail to allow a standard to be operationalized on the one hand as opposed to providing sufficient information to cover virtually every contingency. Before the line of too much detail is crossed, judgment would come into play. Finding this happy medium will not be easy. In addition, when judgment comes into play we enter the arena of potential moral turpitude, a situation that we accountants have become much too familiar with of late.

The objectives-oriented aspect of principles-based standards would require a clearer delineation in the conceptual framework in terms of how to determine trade-offs between relevance and reliability (Chapter 7) and how these would impact comparability.

Still further changes and improvements would need to be made to the conceptual framework. As discussed in Chapter 7, SFAC No. 5 takes a very "status quo" approach to measurement and recognition criteria with the revenue-expense approach being an acceptable part of the mix. This is in conflict with SFAC No. 6 where the definition of elements is oriented toward the asset-liability view. If SFAC No. 5 can be made consistent with SFAC No. 6, the way should be paved toward a more orderly and consistent move toward more appropriate measurement attributes for assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses, although we can expect some applications of historical cost to be with us for a considerable time to come.

In addition to these conceptual framework clarifications mentioned in the report, further examination toward principles-based accounting might stem from possible conflicts between the user objectives of predicting future cash flows as opposed to evaluating entity (and management performance. SFAC No. 2 opts in favor of predicting future cash flows as the primary user objective. In the case of pension accounting (SFAS No. 87) a conflict is present between these two objectives (Chapters 7 and 15) which also involves issues such as the definition of a liability and trade-offs between relevance and reliability as well as - ultimately - comparability. Hence it is highly possible that resolving conflicts between relevance and reliability could involve the overriding user objectives.

The report cites SFAS Nos. 141 and 142 as examples of principles-based accounting standards. SFAS No. 141 eliminates pooling of interests, a step long overdue (see Chapter 17). SFAS No. 142 eliminates formulaic write-downs of goodwill with provisions for testing for possible impairment. Among other standards mentioned as good examples of principles-based standards in SFAS No. 52 on foreign currency translation. Our analysis of this standard in Chapter 18 sees SFAS No. 52 as a good application of finite uniformity. [3] 

We believe that the report provides a good road map for implementing principles-based accounting standards. The fact that it is an SEC report, as opposed to an academic study, or even a FASB or IASC report, bodes well for a speedier implementation.