Monday, August 25, 2008

How fair is Fair Market Value?

The whole world seems to despise Fair Value or Mark-to-Market (M2M) accounting standard that is, what an asset would be expected to fetch right now in a sale. It’s when regulators enforced it, the banks had to expose their ugly underbelly that led to massive write downs. It now stokes a fear that whether the liquidity crisis will eventually lead to a solvency crisis. As holders of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and the like revalue their assets at fire-sale prices, they are running short of capital—which can lead to further sales and more write-downs. Are the bean counters ensuring a crash? Asks the Economist.

So is historic cost accounting an alternative? Hardly. It could be worse. In a crisis prices fall until bottom-fishers start to buy. Yet when assets were booked at their original price, rather than at market price, banks could delude themselves—and investors—that dross was gold. Look at Japan, where the economy was sunk for most of the 1990s by stagnant loans to “zombie” companies. Historic-cost left investors in the dark about valuations; it was also prone to fraud and fraught with moral hazard, since sloppy lending went unpunished.

It would be perverse to ignore market signals when finance is increasingly based on broad capital markets. Fair-value accounting is indeed flawed. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst kind of accounting, except for all the others. But one can be careful on selection of the benchmark.

No comments: