Fannie, Freddie and the Credibility GAAP

Accounting humor:

What’s the definition of an accountant? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

What’s an auditor? Someone who arrives after the battle and bayonets the wounded.

What are Generally Accepted Accounting Principles [GAAP]? The difference between accounting theory and practice.

In my world that’s funny, but this isn’t; In uncertain economic times, my accounting profession is part of the problem, not the solution. reports the following:

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson decided to take control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after a review found the beleaguered mortgage-finance companies used accounting methods that inflated their capital, according to people with knowledge of the decision.Morgan Stanley, hired by the Treasury to probe the companies’ finances, concluded the accounting, while legal, enabled Freddie, and to a lesser extent Fannie, to overstate the value of their reserves, according to the people who declined to be identified because the findings are confidential.

See the WSJ and NYT articles describing the takeover.

The WSJ Editorial page weighs in on the bailout itself [complete editorial copied at end of post]:

We only wish Mr. Paulson had gone further and erased all private equity holders the way the feds do in a typical bank failure. Fan and Fred holders had profited handsomely for decades by exploiting an implicit taxpayer guarantee that their management claimed didn’t exist. Now that the taxpayers are in fact stepping in, the current common and preferred holders deserve to lose everything. Mr. Paulson apparently wanted to dodge that political fight. If Fan and Fred share prices rally this week, we’ll know Mr. Paulson didn’t demand enough.

Noted Economist Greg Mankiw makes a similar point:

I am saddened whenever any private profit-seeking enterprise gets bailed out, whether it is Chrysler, Long-term Capital Management, Bear Stearns, or the GSEs. Such bailouts sow the seeds of the next financial crisis by fostering expectations of future bailouts and encouraging excessive risk-taking. (And before anyone emails me that the GSE equity holders are not exactly getting a good deal here, let me point out that the debt holders are. In a capitalist system, you want those extending both debt and equity finance to bear the consequences of the risks they undertake. If the taxpayer is chipping in, someone is being insulated from risk.)

See the complete WSJ article on the coming changes in GAAP below.

Closing the Information GAAP
September 8, 2008

What’s the definition of an accountant? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

What’s an auditor? Someone who arrives after the battle and bayonets the wounded.

And drum roll, please: What are Generally Accepted Accounting Principles? The difference between accounting theory and practice.

No joke, accountants are the Rodney Dangerfields of business. But perhaps they deserve some respect after all. Accountants in the U.S. are signing up for a fundamental rethinking of how they do their jobs. As a result, it should finally be possible for global investing and trade to operate on a common understanding, or accounting, of businesses.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced that the U.S. will abandon Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — for almost 75 years, the bible for U.S. accountants — joining more than 100 countries around the world instead in using the London-based International Financial Reporting Standards. Pointing to the “remarkably quickening pace of acceptance of a true lingua franca for accounting,” SEC Chairman Chris Cox set out a timetable for all U.S. companies to drop GAAP by 2016, with the largest companies switching as early as next year.

There are specific differences between the two systems; for example, the international system only allows the first-in, first-out inventory accounting system. The most important difference is that the international standard is based on principles, whereas GAAP is based on rules. GAAP suffers from the complexity of trying to set rules for all situations, a complexity that often masks economic reality.

GAAP rules fill a nine-inch, three-volume set of pronouncements plus interpretive information. In contrast, IFRS is a slim two-inch book. GAAP was crafted in part by the pressures of the U.S. legal system. Companies have been glad for GAAP rules as defenses for claims of accounting irregularities. But these rules often only pretend to provide clarity. There are hundreds of pages of GAAP covering how to account for derivatives, but this didn’t stop opaque pricing mismatches, which helped create the credit crunch. GAAP rules allowed trillions of dollars in securitized financial assets and liabilities to stay off the books of U.S. financial firms, while the international standard, by focusing on the true underlying economics, kept these on the books for firms based elsewhere.

It’s surprising that there is no common language for measuring the performance of companies. Until recently, all major countries had their own accounting rules, but IFRS has become the approach of choice. Inconsistent approaches to accounting make it hard to compare an energy company based in Texas with one based in Amsterdam, a bank in New York with one in London, or a biotech firm in Boston with one in Singapore. A single set of accounting rules would mean more effective global disclosure and transparency. It would reduce costs for multinationals that must now prepare multiple books. It would also make U.S. exchanges more competitive for listings by eliminating accounting differences.

A measure of the importance of a single standard is the dislocation that getting there will cause. It will mean rewriting business school texts and retraining of corporate finance departments. The forensic accountants who sniff out problems will have to develop instincts using a new set of measures. The transition will also be tough on investors. Under the SEC proposal, larger companies in the same industry would switch to the international standard before smaller companies do. Investors for the transition period would have to compare similar companies using different accounting.

The big U.S.-based accounting firms generally support the abandonment of GAAP. Skeptics could call this switch in systems the equivalent of the accountant full-employment act for many years, but the profession itself also recognizes that GAAP often fails to reflect underlying economics.

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers briefing document for executives on the accounting change notes that changes will also be necessary in the law. “If an accounting and reporting framework that relies on professional judgment rather than detailed rules is to flourish in the U.S., the legal and regulatory environment will need to evolve in ways that remain to be seen.” These include that “regulators will need to respect well-reasoned professional judgments.”

A system based on principles could create new defenses for company boards and accountants who try to do the right thing, if they fully disclose why they thought that a particular accounting treatment made sense. The law will have to adjust to accept more ambiguity in accounting, as a necessary condition for reporting with maximum accuracy.

As technology has shown in other areas of life, agreed-upon standards and accepted operating systems drive usage and efficiency. Common measures add value to information. If even the belt-and-suspenders accounting profession is willing to take on the risks of switching its basic system for assessing businesses, we’re truly in an era when anything that adds to understanding belongs in the asset column, while anything that undermines transparency is a liability.

Weekend at Henry’s
September 8, 2008; Page A18

In the 1989 movie “Weekend at Bernie’s,” a pair of young executives create the illusion that their dead boss is still alive to keep a party going. That’s not too far from the premise of this weekend’s Treasury bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants that have become financial zombies.
[Henry Paulson]

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants to prop up the walking dead so the world keeps buying their mortgage-backed securities. His action may calm jittery credit markets, and it may get the companies through the current mortgage crisis — albeit at enormous cost to American taxpayers. The tragedy is that he and Congress didn’t act 18 months ago — when the cost would have been far less — and that he still isn’t killing the Fannie and Freddie business model that has done so much damage. These corpses could still return to haunt us again.
* * *

At least Mr. Paulson has finally figured out he’s been lied to. He arrived in Washington fresh from the Wall Street turnip truck saying that the battle over the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) was nothing but a scrap between “ideologues.” So he bought the Congressional line that Fan and Fred weren’t a problem and would help financial markets through the housing recession. Even as he won new power this summer to add taxpayer capital to the companies, he said he had no intention to use that power and that he wanted to sustain them in their “current form.” That political theater merely prolonged the market agony, while giving the companies incentive to take even greater risks.

This weekend’s formal rescue puts an end to those illusions. Treasury and the new GSE regulator — the Federal Housing Finance Agency — both acknowledge that the companies are facing huge mortgage losses that will soon overwhelm their capital cushions. And this time Mr. Paulson has at least demanded something in return for his blank taxpayer check.

The new federal “conservatorship” is a form of nationalization that puts regulators firmly in control. The feds fired the company boards and CEOs, though the clean up needs to go further to change the corporate cultures. Both companies remain Beltway satraps that hire for reasons of political connection, not financial expertise.

The taxpayer purchase of preferred stock means that the feds will own about 80% of the companies if all the warrants are ultimately exercised. The feds also stopped dividend payments, saving about $2 billion a year. This amounts to significant dilution for current Fannie and Freddie shareholders, and it offers taxpayers some return on their bailout risk if the companies recover.

We only wish Mr. Paulson had gone further and erased all private equity holders the way the feds do in a typical bank failure. Fan and Fred holders had profited handsomely for decades by exploiting an implicit taxpayer guarantee that their management claimed didn’t exist. Now that the taxpayers are in fact stepping in, the current common and preferred holders deserve to lose everything. Mr. Paulson apparently wanted to dodge that political fight. If Fan and Fred share prices rally this week, we’ll know Mr. Paulson didn’t demand enough.

The Treasury chief also gave a free pass to the holders of some $18 billion in Fan and Fred subordinated debt. He did so even though these securities were understood not to have the same status as mortgage-backed securities or other Fannie debt, and even though this will set a bad precedent for other bailouts. Watch for Citigroup’s subordinated debt to jump in price as investors conclude that the feds would do the same thing if Citi needs a rescue.

By far the biggest risk here, however, is that the companies could still emerge with their business model intact. That model is the perverse mix of private profit and public risk, which gave them an incentive to make irresponsible mortgage bets with a taxpayer guarantee.

Mr. Paulson could have ended that model immediately by putting the companies into “receivership.” Both companies could have continued to securitize mortgages, even as their riskiest businesses were wound down. But Treasury says its lawyers at Wachtell Lipton advised that receivership might have triggered default claims and thus caused a run on Fannie and Freddie debt. We hear there’s some legal debate on that point. And in any case, had Mr. Paulson acted sooner and given markets time to understand that receivership doesn’t mean immediate liquidation, the risk of a run might now be far less.

The Treasury plan does at least put some useful limits on Fan and Fred risk-taking, albeit starting only in 2010. Until the housing market bottoms out, presumably in 2009, the feds want the two companies to keep securitizing and guaranteeing mortgages as they do now. But in January 2010, the companies will have to start reducing their portfolios of MBSs by 10% a year, to a total of $250 billion. That will reduce one giant source of systemic financial risk.

Also in 2010, the companies will have to start paying a fee to the feds in return for their taxpayer guarantee. The fee — which could be paid in cash, or in preferred stock and thus add to the government’s controlling stake — is designed to level the playing field with private mortgage securitizers.

Treasury says all of this will provide a motive for Congress and the new President to change how Fan and Fred do business, and in the meantime the conservator has also ordered a stop to their political lobbying. It’s also nice to see that on this point Mr. Paulson has found religion. In his statement Sunday, he blamed the need for a bailout on “the inherent conflict and flawed business model embedded in the GSE structure.” Welcome to our merry band of “ideologues,” Mr. Secretary.

The Treasury chief has nonetheless decided to leave the hardest political choices to his successor, who will have to face down the usual phalanx of Fannie apologists: Democratic barons Barney Frank and Chuck Schumer, the homebuilders, various Wall Street sages and left-wing journalists.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain are now saying sensible things about the need to change the companies. But who knows how the political mood will have shifted once the housing slump passes. It’s easy to imagine the next Treasury Secretary concluding that he also thinks the fight for permanent reform is too difficult. Then we are back to the same old stand.
* * *

The Fannie-Freddie bailout is one of the great political scandals of our age, all the more because it was so obviously coming for so long. Officials at the Federal Reserve warned about it for years, only to be ignored by both parties on Capitol Hill. The least we can do now is bury these undead monsters for all time.

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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