Global accounting head highlights costs of U.S. inaction

NEW YORK Thu Jan 10, 2013 4:56pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The costs of delaying a move by the United States to international accounting standards are probably higher than the costs of a switch, the head of a global accounting rules body warned on Thursday.

By not committing to international standards, the United States also may become just one of many players in shaping accounting rules, instead of a driving force, Hans Hoogervorst, chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board, indicated.

The London-based IASB has been working for a decade with U.S. rule-makers to "converge," or bring their accounting standards closer together.

The IASB sets international financial reporting standards, or IFRS, used in over 100 countries. U.S. companies still use generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, rather than the global standard used by other countries.

Hoogervorst said investors are bearing huge costs for the process of trying to compare and contrast the financial performance of companies around the world using different standards.

Those costs "are probably a lot bigger than the one-time conversion cost that an economy has to make when it converts" to IFRS, he said.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has mulled a move to international rules for years, but has recently cooled on making the change. The SEC staff disappointed global rule-setters last summer by issuing a final report on a switch to IFRS with no recommendation.

Support for a switch has waned amid concerns about the costs and worries by some that IFRS allows more management judgment than highly detailed U.S. accounting rules.

VOLUNTARY ADOPTION PANNED

"I don't see any signs of any imminent decisions in Washington," Hoogervorst told securities analysts at a conference in New York.

The IASB wants to continue working with the United States, but it will be just one of many players at the table, he said.

The IASB in November proposed a new 12-member Accounting Standards Advisory Forum, expected to become a key source of input to international rules.

But membership on the board requires a commitment to a single set of global accounting standards, which would leave out the United States.

Hoogervorst said the commitment requirement could probably be changed to something the United States could live with so that it could be on the board.

FASB has voiced concerns about not meeting requirements to be on the forum. It has argued that U.S. and international rules can be brought closer if standard-setters continue to work together.

Eventually, differences would be so insignificant "that for all intents and purposes, we have a single set of standards - sort of like American English and the Queen's English," FASB Chairman Leslie Seidman said at Thursday's conference.

An interim solution that had been considered at one point - allowing certain U.S. companies to voluntarily use IFRS - would "make the system a mess," Seidman said in response to a question.

Jenifer Minke-Girard, a staff member at the SEC's office of chief accountant, said some companies had made preparations to voluntarily switch to IFRS, but the SEC had never reached a consensus to allow that.

(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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