The Bruce Column — Making the future more realistic than rosy

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25 Jul 2019

The Chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board, Hans Hoogervorst, is half way through his second, and final, term as Chairman.

In a video interview with Robert Bruce, he reflects on recent achievements, work still to be finalised, how non-GAAP measures lead to what he terms a ‘rosy’ view in accounts, and work ahead on many issues, including ensuring climate change is reflected in the figures.

The difficulties that have faced the IASB and its Chairman, Hans Hoogervorst, in recent years have all been ones that by their very nature are hard to pin down. Everyone knows that the risks surrounding climate change and market dislocation reflect real financial risks. But often the systems available make it harder for the financial reporting standards, (IFRS), to deal with them.

Hoogervorst looks to future IASB projects to provide at least some of the answers. He talks of the upcoming revision of the Board’s Management Commentary Practice Statement as part of the solution. ‘It would’, he says, ‘be a good vehicle for focusing on financial risks not yet captured in financial statements’. And he also sees it as a solution to issues surrounding the recommendations as to how to deal with climate-related financial disclosure.

While he insists it is not the place of the IASB to get involved with sustainability reporting he said that Management Commentary would be ‘an excellent vehicle’ to convey the disclosures. He said that such disclosures ‘fit perfectly in the annual report’ and that the IASB will write new guidance to cover it. And he is also keen that the IASB project on the nature of Primary Financial Statements should provide the guidance needed to ensure that there is more rigour surrounding the financial information that currently escapes financial statements.

These are the non-GAAP numbers that he suggests are generally more ‘rosy’ than the numbers reported under IFRS. ‘This is one of the most important pieces of work that we are currently working on’, he says. ‘The income statement’, he says, ‘ is the most important piece of information that is used by investors for future cash-flow projections and evaluations’, yet ‘what is currently the case in IFRS is that in the income statement we define revenue and we define profit or loss but in between we define not all that much’. Investors and companies, he suggests, like to look at subtotals like operating profit, or EBIT, or EBITDA, to better understand their own results or to explain it to investors. ‘But’, as Hoogervorst points out, ‘we don’t define any of that’. And into that gap has grown the mass of non-GAAP.

‘Non-GAAP is basically created by companies themselves’, he said, ‘but without the discipline of proper accounting standards. So it is no surprise’, he said, ‘that much of this information tends to be on the optimistic side. 70 to 80% of non-GAAP is more rosy than the IFRS numbers’. Hence the Primary Financial Statements project. ‘We have decided to make a definition for operating income. We have decided to define an EBIT-like subtotal which makes it possible for investors to better compare the performance of companies irrespective of the way that they are financed; by leverage or more by equity. By doing so’, says Hoogervorst, ‘we will provide more anchors in the financial statements for comparison across the board. It is extremely important’, he says. ‘We will also provide guidance and discipline around the use of the common practice of taking unusual items out of the income statement, which is one of the sources of rosiness’. And we will make it very clear that you have to do that symmetrically – if you take out expenses you probably have to take out some unusual sources of income that might not recur every year’.

All of this, and a variety of other measures will, says Hoogervorst ‘provide a lot more structure and order in the income statement’. All this, as ever, will take time, probably a couple of years, as it goes through the IASB process. The same has been true of IFRS 17 on insurance. ‘It has been clear that a lot of investors avoid investing in insurance companies because they cannot understand the accounting’, he says. ‘The existence of the new standard might draw more investors to the business of insurance’. At present he says that ‘it is a bit of a mess’. ‘Quite frankly’, he said, ‘investors rely more on prudential information than on accounting, and on a lot of non-GAAP, and we all know the problems with non-GAAP’. n Nevertheless he forsees an effective date of 2022 for the finalized standard. And looking at the IFRS landscape generally he is optimistic. ‘Accounting cannot prevent crises’, he says, ‘but we should be able to give better transparency about the risks that are building up in the financial system or within a company’.

Across the economy from banks to insurance companies he believes the useful and reliable information will be there. ‘I believe the introduction of IFRS 9, with the introduction of the expected loss model, should give investors a much quicker and better insight into the risks building up on the balance sheet of a bank’. The insurance reforms are also, he says, extremely important for the whole financial system. The update of management commentary will, he says, give investors a better insight into the future risks of a company related to, for example, sustainability issues, but also related to its business model or the technology it is working with. ‘All of these improvements will’, he says, ‘serve investors better in a future period of crisis’.

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