Counting on a new accounting

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It has to be one of the more obscure subjects ever addressed in a news release from a major presidential campaign. John McCain — who two weeks ago called for the ouster of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox — now is praising the agency. Why? Its decision on Tuesday “to relax mark-to-market accounting requirements.”

“John McCain is pleased to see that the SEC has finally decided to permit alternative accounting methods to mark-to-market accounting for securities where no active market exists,” said McCain’s chief economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin.

The idea that the financial crisis, at its root, is an accounting problem that can be fixed by loosening the accounting rules has gained currency in Washington in recent days. House Republicans who voted against the bailout bill on Monday believe the culprit is mark-to-market. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called for the SEC to suspend the rules, which he argues may have made AIG and Lehman Brothers look worse off than they were. Steve Forbes calls the accounting rules a “virus” infecting the economy.

So what is “mark to market”? It’s simply a rule that publicly traded corporations account for their assets according to their current market value. The problem is that the current market value of all those complex securities fashioned out of subprime mortgage loans that have gone bad is — well, no one wants to buy them at all.

While the administration and Congress grapple with how to address that “toxic waste” on the books of financial institutions, there’s a growing drumbeat in favor of just allowing the banks to account for the unwanted securities as more valuable than they now seem to be. And that drumbeat is led by the commercial banking industry, an ever-potent force on Capitol Hill, having given $13 million in campaign contributions to Democrats and $15 million to Republicans in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Walter P. Schuetze, chief accountant of the SEC in the 1990s, who is now retired, remembers the banking industry’s long-standing opposition to mark-to-market. Schuetze, following the lead of then-SEC Chairman Richard Breeden, promoted mark-to-market to remedy the abuses seen during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. Back then, part of the problem was that “savings and loans and commercial banks were able to use historical cost accounting to make up their income as they went along,” Schuetze says.

Over the next 15 years, the regulators embraced mark-to-market as the method that would best show investors the fair value of an institution’s assets.

“The band began playing mark-to-market, but the banking industry seemed to have two left feet,” says Schuetze. “They didn’t want to dance to mark-to-market — they didn’t like that tune at all because it took away all of their flexibility.”

Although the McCain press release praises the SEC for a move to “relax” the mark-to-market rule, the regulators said it was a “clarification,” spelling out how management can address the value of assets in a market that is not functioning, like the market in the subprime mortgage securities. The SEC, joined by the Financial Accounting Standards Board in the statement, reaffirmed its belief in the market price, but said, “The determination of fair value often requires significant judgment” — perhaps giving the banking industry some of the flexibility it seeks.

But the issue is far from resolved. The Senate bailout bill orders the SEC to conduct a study on the impact of mark-to-market accounting, and spells out that the agency has authority to suspend the accounting rule entirely.

Schuetze himself wrote a note to SEC Chairman Christopher Cox last month, warning that such a move would be “disastrous” because it would hide from investors the information they need about the true financial state of institutions. “The fair values at times of stress are just as important as at times of calm,” he wrote.

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