Wednesday, October 1, 2008

SEC, FASB Legitimize "Sweeping Under Carpet" Accounting Method

Nevermind the FBI investigation into accounting fraud at AIG, Lehman, Fannie and Freddie. Forget about the fact that creditors holding any secured or unsecured obligations of Lehman Brothers appear unlikely to recover anything in the bankruptcy. Pay no attention to the fact that even Lehman's prime brokerage customers, who should be protected, can't access their assets. As the Lehman bankruptcy unfolds, it is becoming shockingly apparent that the company was nothing other than a ponzi scheme that relied on manufactured marks of its securities. How has the SEC and FASB chosen to respond to the current crisis? They have loosened regulations related to mark-to-market accounting. According to the new clarifications, companies that are required to use fair value accounting can now rely on their own judgement when determining pricing of securities in their inventories. They no longer have to use market prices when securities aren't trading or are trading at "fire-sale" prices. Just what the market needs to restore confidence that our entire financial system isn't a huge ponzi scheme: LESS CLARITY IN THE VALUE OF BALANCE SHEETS.
Apparently, our regulators have been convinced by the ailing financial community that the current prices trading (or not trading) in the market are "fire-sale" prices and don't reflect the actual future cash flows the securities will produce. Perhaps this explains why the bailout package aimed to purchase securities at "hold-to-maturity" prcies rather than "fire-sale" prices. What is really nifty about mark-to-MARKET accounting, as opposed to FAKE-YOUR-OWN accounting is that if values really are depressed, when the actual cash flows come in and the markets rebound, you make all that money back. Unfortunately, if you are leveraged out your ass, you might not make it until the market rebounds. As a leveraged institution, you should be well aware of the "blow-out" factor and attempt to avoid making horrible short-term investment decisions that will threaten your solvency. But, no need to worry about that anymore. Thanks to the SEC and FASB, you can invest at every whim and just sweep everything under the rug until market prices suit your fancy. No clarification was provided on what to do if your assumptions turned out to be wrong and those "fire-sale" prices were right.
All of this is great news for Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Because now, they no longer have to wonder how to classify all of the cash they spent lobbying for changes that would benefit their businesses so they wouldn't have to come out of the closet about the true value of their Level III assets. They can call it "other" and move on to lobbying for that bailout bill to pass.

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