Congress Helped Banks Defang Key Rule

by Chris Sturr | June 09, 2009

From the WSJ last week; hat-tip to Michael Perelman.

Susan Pulliam and Tom McGinty | 3 June | p. A 1.

Not long after the bottom fell out of the market for mortgage securities last fall, a group of financial firms took aim at an accounting rule that forced them to report billions of dollars of losses on those assets. Marshalling a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign, these firms persuaded key members of Congress to pressure the accounting industry to change the rule in April. The payoff is likely to be fatter bottom lines in the second quarter. The accounting issue lies at the heart of the financial crisis: Are the hardest-to-value securities worth no more than what the market is willing to pay, or did the market grow too dysfunctional to properly set values?

The rule change angered some investor advocates. “This is political interference on a major issue, and it raises questions about whether accounting standards going forward will have the quality and integrity that the market needs,” says Patrick Finnegan, director of financial-reporting policy for CFA Institute Centre for Financial Market Integrity, an investor trade group.

The rules had required banks, securities firms and insurers to use market prices to help assign values to mortgage securities and other assets that don’t trade on exchanges—to “mark to market.” But when markets went haywire last fall, financial firms complained that the rules forced them to slash the value of many assets based on fire-sale prices. That contributed to big losses that depleted their capital and left several of the nation’s largest firms on the brink of failure. Earlier this year, financial-services organizations put their lobbyists on the case. Thirty-one financial firms and trade groups formed a coalition and spent $27.6 million in the first quarter lobbying Washington about the rule and other issues, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of public filings. They also directed campaign contributions totaling $286,000 to legislators on a key committee, many of whom pushed for the rule change, the filings indicate.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the House Financial Services subcommittee that pressed for the accounting change, received $18,500 from coalition members in the first quarter, the second-highest total among committee members, according to Federal Election Commission records. Over the past two years, Mr. Kanjorski received $704,000 in contributions from banking and insurance firms, the third-highest total among members of Congress, according to the FEC and the Center for Responsive Politics.

During a March 12 hearing before the House subcommittee, FASB came under intense pressure from committee members. “If the regulators and standard setters do not act now to improve the standards, then the Congress will have no other option than to act itself,” Rep. Kanjorski said in his opening remarks. “We want you to act,” Rep. Kanjorski told Robert Herz, FASB’s chief. Mr. Herz waffled about how quickly the standards board could act. Rep. Kanjorski leaned over the dais. “You do understand the message that we’re sending?” he said.

“Yes,” Mr. Herz replied. “I absolutely do, sir.” FASB made speedy revisions to its rules. In an interview, Mr. Herz said FASB merely accelerated the matter on its agenda, and tried to be responsive to input from investors and financial-services firms.

The change helped turn around investor sentiment on banks. Financial firms had the option of reflecting the accounting change in their first-quarter results; they will be required to do so in the second quarter. Wells Fargo & Co. said the change increased its capital by $4.4 billion in the first quarter. Citigroup Inc. said the change added $413 million to first-quarter earnings. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston said the shift boosted its first-quarter earnings by $349 million. Robert Willens, a tax and accounting analyst, estimates that the changes will increase bank earnings in the second quarter by an average of 7%.

Mark-to-market accounting has been around for decades. Many banks were content with the rules when the markets were going up. But the rules became a big problem in late 2007. As markets turned down, FASB clarified the rules and established how certain financial instruments, including mortgage securities, should be valued. The guidelines said valuations should reflect “observable” input such as market prices whenever possible. They required banks to disclose extensive information about assets they were unable to value based on market prices. Financial firms last year reported losses or write-downs totaling roughly $175 billion, according to Michael Mayo, an analyst at the CLSA unit of Credit Agricole SA.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.) and Rep. Kanjorski pushed Mr. Herz to agree to a speedier timetable. They repeatedly cited Rep. Perlmutter’s legislation to broaden oversight of FASB. “It will be done in three weeks. Can and will,” Rep. Ackerman instructed Mr. Herz. “Yes,” Mr. Herz replied. “Can and will,” Rep. Ackerman repeated. Rep. Ackerman declined to comment through a spokesman. A FASB director, Lawrence Smith, said at the time that FASB had little choice but to act. “We can’t ignore what’s going on around us,” he said.

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