New regime to prise open insurers' 'black box' accounts

LONDON Thu Jun 20, 2013 8:04am EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - An international bookkeeping regime unveiled on Thursday aims to shed more light on the insurance industry's "black box" balance sheets although the transition will take several years and the United States will keep its own, very different rules.

The new system will get rid of inconsistencies in accounting rules for insurers from country to country that have crimped investors' appetite and pushed up the sector's cost of capital. It will also make it easier to interpret insurance firms' accounts, nicknamed "black box" accounts by analysts because of their complexity.

The rule is the International Accounting Standards Board's (IASB) third try after 15 years and is largely unchanged from a previous draft. For each reporting period insurers must update policy values based on prevailing market conditions rather than at historic cost.

This means using current interest rates rather than ones dating back a decade in some cases, and firms have warned that will make earnings seem more volatile.

"For the first time there will be a consistent model across countries which comes with a significant level of transparency to break down the black box of insurance accounting and make the market more interesting for investors," Francesco Nagari, Deloitte's global head of insurance accounting said.

Joachim Koelschbach, who heads KPMG's work on IASB insurance rules, said the reform would be the biggest ever financial reporting change for most of the sector.

The new elements in the IASB's latest draft comprise five incremental changes to try to quell the opposition seen last time round. These relate to presentation of an insurer's income statement and some new exemptions to dampen swings in profits not due to actual performance.

"The document published today responds to concerns expressed about non-economic volatility resulting from our previous proposals," IASB Chairman Hans Hoogervorst said.

The draft standard is out to public consultation until October but is unlikely to become effective until around 2017.

Complete international alignment is also unlikely for the forseeable future as U.S. accounting rulemaker FASB is due to come out with its own draft insurance rule change in July. But this will differ fundamentally in approach from the IASB.

World leaders have asked the IASB - whose rules are used in over 100 countries, including European Union states - to align its standards with those of FASB so that investors can make global company comparisons more easily.

But while the IASB will require firms to take into account risks to profits, the FASB does not believe this can be done.

"The IASB approach requires a risk adjustment while the United States has rejected this idea. FASB sees the IASB's approach as an unnecessary complexity and untested within financial reporting," Nagari said.

U.S. insurers account for a third of the global market.

(Editing by Louise Ireland and Jane Merriman)