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Open and above board

A chat about catching a plane would seem on the face of it to be a fairly innocuous event. Indeed, amid much fanfare, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il recently jetted into China. Chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) Sir David Tweedie’s staff, however, demanded that his trip to Japan be shrouded in more secrecy than the dictator’s.

The handful of observers gathered to watch the 20 April 2010 meeting of the IASB were abruptly ordered to leave the room by the board’s lease accounting project manager, Rachel Knubley, lest they overhear Tweedie and IASB member Tatsumi Yamadi discussing his Japan junket over a public internet link.

The incident underlines how much authority has fallen into the hands the IASB as an institution and its junior staff. The issue was brought into sharp focus during a recent board discussion on the future scope of the joint arrangements accounting standard and that standard’s interaction with the board’s increasingly complex annual improvements project.

The board inaugurated annual improvements on 18 July 2006. The project is supposedly aimed at addressing what the then board agreed would be non-urgent, minor amendments to its standards. It will come as little surprise that the board did not define ‘minor amendment’.

Since then, the effort has become a veritable staff-led insurgency, sniping at IFRS preparers without warning. Far from minor amendments, a typical oeuvre might involve a meeting paper running to some seven or eight pages. Hindering the ability of constituents to follow the highly technical arguments is the IASB’s practice, across all of its projects, of permitting staff with weak spoken English to present to the board.

Speaking with perfect clarity during the 18 February joint arrangements discussion was IASB member Robert Garnett, who said: “This is not what was proposed for an annual improvement unless you want a letter to the trustees pointing out that we are now in breach of our constitutional duty in issuing annual improvements that having exposed them and redeliberated them we then issue something that is completely different. So your choice is now, I think to withdraw that amendment from the annual improvements and to make it a consequential amendment of this change to joint arrangements.”

Such amendments ususally go through on the nod. Later, Garnett told IASB’s technical director Alan Teixeira: “With due respect, the annual improvements have been through a public due process, they have been through a redeliberation at the IFRIC, they have been through a public redeliberation at the IASB. You may think something different, that is your opinion.”

Teixeira confirmed this was indeed the case, prompting Garnett to add: “Then I think we need to take the issue offline; we need to redeliberate the whole basis for annual improvements because I am not at all pleased with comments from staff about wording changes that go back to the beginning of this year that have been agreed in public meetings, and then offline you decide to change them.”

There is also concern about what IASB staff have been cooking up behind the scenes on the future direction of the pensions accounting project. The recent exposure draft ostensibly forms phase one of a two-phase shake up. For phase two, the IASB will supposedly join with the US FASB and mount a joint effort to tackle issues such as measurement.

In a document presented to the board’s Standards Advisory Council on 22 February by Teixeira, the board describes IAS19 as “recently revised”. In a somewhat meaningless comparison between IFRS and US GAAP, the document assumes that the two will be “converged in principle but important differences exist”. No SAC member questioned the technical soundness of what is fundamentally meaningless staff-speak.

As for potential activity on post-employment benefits accounting between 2011 and 2016, the document refers to “reconsideration of measurement of benefit of obligation”. The board notes that “the [national standard setters] and EFRAG have undertaken projects on these, and other, topics.” Ahead of an agenda decision later this year, whether this assumption of convergence between US GAAP and IFRS suggests a phase 1.5 ahead of the long-expected phase 2 project is anyone’s guess.

What we can reveal are David Tweedie’s travel plans from 20 April: he returned to London with BA that night. From London, he flew the following Sunday to Tokyo. Tatsumi Yamada and the ASBJ arranged a series of meetings for him to attend. Both the IASB and the Japanese standard setter have yet to produce a detailed account of those meetings. David Tweedie likes to call it “open and above board due process”.
 

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