If you work in accountancy you will have been far too busy since 2009 with the chaos created by David Tweedie out of the International Accounting Standards Board’s workplan to worry too much about administrative matters over at the board’s Cannon Street headquarters. That means there is a real danger that you could have missed an item on the board’s agenda for 21 March 2012 about operating procedures at the board’s International Financial Reporting Standards Interpretations Committee.
The committee, formed back in 2002, is your first port of call - after a phone call to your auditors and advisers - where an accounting standard is unclear on a given point. It used to be known as the International Financial Reporting Interpretations Committee. So, were you to be unsure about some aspect of discount rate selection under IAS 19, having drawn a blank with your advisers, you should fire off a request to the IFRS IC.
Until now, as Michael Stewart, the IASB’s director for implementation activities, explained during the 21 March meeting, the committee has largely focused its efforts on two remedies - issue an interpretation, or amend a standard under the annual improvements process. Failing that, the committee will typically issue a rejection notice. These have varied in their helpfulness to constituents and generally follow one of two paths.
Occasionally, the committee has seen the merit in a request and has endeavoured to steer constituents in the right direction. On other occasions the rejection wording has been less than helpful - perhaps merely noting that the requirements of IFRSs are “clear”. Over time, as the rejection notices have mounted, they have acquired the somewhat unfortunate soubriquet of ‘NIFRICs’.
This problem has festered for over half a decade. Although the notices do not have the force of a formal accounting standard or official interpretation, sometimes they are treated as such. And NIFRICs can be hard to retrieve.
The reluctance of the IASB’s interpretive body to interpret standards was in no small part a result of the experience of US GAAP. The experience of the US had been of a complex, multi-layered approach where guidance and staff position statements piled on top of accounting standards. The last FASB chairman, Bob Herz, noted that US GAAP ran to an eye-watering 25,000 pages until a recent codification - largely focused on removing redundant cross-references - cut the page count to some 17,000 pages. The big selling point for IFRS is its supposed brevity.
And, the argument ran, the IFRIC could not run around throwing out interpretations willy-nilly because, if it did, IFRS would eventually grow to be as unwieldy as US GAAP. Of course, we must not forget that IFRS is supposed to be a principles-based environment, whereas US GAAP is largely rules-based. As long as a principle is clearly articulated, then constituents should have no difficulties in figuring out a solution to their particular accounting problem. Well, that’s the theory.
But it would appear that the Berlin Wall approach to dealing with the outside world has, at long last, run out of steam. Speaking at the 21 March IASB meeting, Stewart explained that a review of the committee by the IASB’s parent body, the IFRS Foundation Trustees, has led the foundation to conclude that the committee should identify “other ways” to assist constituents “in conjunction with the board”.
Alongside the existing options of developing an interpretation or proposing an amendment to a standard under the annual improvements project, the committee’s staff now plan to propose that the trustees add a range of so-called non-mandatory outcomes. These possible steps include: developing additional illustrative examples; providing more detailed agenda decisions; or handling an issue as an educational project.
Given the level of positive board support, the staff indicated that they will report the board’s leanings “to the Trustees in April 2012 on the proposed responses to the results of the review”. One proposal absent from the staff paper is for the IASB to develop clear accounting standards that remove the need for reams of interpretive guidance or apparently endless annual improvements.