Comparability is crucial for informed investment decisions

Investors require financial data that is comparable over time, comparable within a single set of financial statements, and comparable between companies. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We explain how differences between IFRS and US GAAP, accounting policy options, differing interpretations and accounting estimates, can all reduce comparability.

Convergence and comparability should be a priority for the IASB and FASB. Present consultations by the IASB and FASB regarding the accounting for credit losses are a good opportunity to better align IFRS and US GAAP, and to remove the confusing disconnect between purchased and originated loans, as we discuss in our response.

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Expected credit losses: Beware the day 2 effect

Following the 2008 financial crisis, loan loss provisioning was changed to reflect ‘expected’ losses rather than ‘incurred’ losses. This made the impairment reserves of banks more responsive to changes in credit quality, but it also introduced a potentiaqlly confusing day 2 effect.

Under US GAAP most expected loan losses are charged to profit up front. This ‘prudent’ approach may be liked by banking regulators, but it can produce performance metrics that are difficult to understand. The effect is greatest for growing loan portfolios, particularly following acquisitions, as illustrated by the Citizens Bank purchase of Silicon Valley Bank.   

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Associate impairments may not reflect underlying economics

Assets measured at cost are subject to impairment testing and potential write-down if there has been a decline in value. However, unclear impairment indicators, subjective measurement and the ability to use so-called value-in-use may mean that accounting impairments do not equal the change in economic value. 

We discuss the impairment process for investments in associated companies that are subject to equity accounting. In the case of French media company Vivendi’s investment in Telecom Italia, a cumulative impairment loss of 1,974m has been recognised since 2015. However, the 2021 balance sheet value still exceeded the market value of the investment by 812m.

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Goodwill accounting – Investors need something different

Once every decade or so accountants fret over goodwill and reconsider how best to report it in financial statements – should it be amortised, impaired, amortised and impaired, or something else? There is no obvious right answer, positions are entrenched, and debate usually gets nowhere.

The problem is that neither amortisation nor impairment provides much help for investors. The debate needs to move on to what really matters – reporting about business value. There are already encouraging moves in this direction. It is time to apply similar innovative thinking to goodwill.

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Goodwill impairments may not identify impaired goodwill

Failed acquisitions do not always result in goodwill impairments. Management optimism is part of the problem, but so is application of the impairment test in a way that maximises the shielding effect of other assets. This reduces the value of goodwill impairments for investors.

Analysing the success or failure of M&A is important to assess management stewardship. We applaud the IASB’s proposal for more disclosure, but also believe the goodwill impairment test needs a critical review. Some use the ‘too little, too late’ character of impairment to advocate re-introducing goodwill amortisation. We do not agree.

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