Mark to Market or Fair Value Accounting has been identified as one of the principal villains in the credit crisis brought on by subprime loans. Essentially the rule requires accountants to revalue investment assets to reflect today's market value. With no market or at best a 'fire-sale" market, mortgage holders lose borrowing capability.
Lets let the Economist explain it:
WITH memories of their drubbing in the dotcom bust still fresh, accountants have kept their noses clean in this financial crisis. Once again, though, they are being dragged into the fray. That is because they are enforcing fair-value accounting, in which assets must be marked regularly to the market price: that is, what they would be expected to fetch right now in a sale. Regulators and bankers fear that this “mark-to-market” approach is helping to turn a liquidity crisis into a solvency one. As holders of mortgage-backed securities and the like revalue their assets at fire-sale prices, they are running short of capital—which can lead to further sales and more write-downs. Are the beancounters ensuring a crash?
All accounting regimes are flawed, and fair-value is no exception. It is timely and transparent, but when markets collapse, prices become less reliable. How do you mark to market when there is barely any market? Some firms rely on credit-derivative indices, but these are far from perfect proxies (see article). Others cling to internal computer models, but their accountants are cracking down on them. Banks are also being asked by their auditors to put more assets into the fair-value regime's lowest bucket (for the most illiquid assets). This adds to their woes, since such assets carry a higher capital charge.
Regulators worry that mark-to-market may create a “liquidity black hole”. Nerves jangle at every fire-sale, for fear that this will become the new benchmark for sticky assets. The fear is that value-at-risk systems force investment firms and banks to offload securities, leading to price falls and further sales. The temptation is to sell now, before the next lurch down. The result will be excessive write-downs—as the stable value of assets is above today's distressed level.
That is a damning list of failings. And yet, for all its pain, fair-value accounting is still the best way to value businesses. Especially if investors and regulators treat accounting rules sensibly: as a measuring stick, not a source of universal truth.
On that score the old system of historic-cost accounting was worse. In a crisis prices fall until bottom-fishers start to buy. Yet when assets were booked at their original price, rather than the market one, banks could delude themselves—and investors—that dross was gold. Under historic-cost accounting, the banks had every reason not to restructure assets, because that meant owning up to their losses. Look at Japan, where the economy was sunk for most of the 1990s by stagnant loans to “zombie” companies. Historic-cost left investors in the dark about valuations; it was also prone to fraud and fraught with moral hazard, since sloppy lending went unpunished.
[....]It would be perverse to ignore market signals when finance is increasingly based on broad capital markets. Fair-value accounting is indeed flawed. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst kind of accounting, except for all the others.
Economists have been sounding the klaxon in an attempt to head off the present crisis by easing present accounting rules as described by the Financial Acoounting Standards Board Statement #157. Today the SEC announced that it was easing of the interpretation of FAS 157. The FASB will meet on October 1 to review this rule. The Washington Post published this alert:
The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Accounting Standards Board have just made an announcement that, dry as it sounds, may mean a great deal: "When an active market for a security does not exist, the use of management estimates that incorporate current market participant expectations of future cash flows, and include appropriate risk premiums, is acceptable."
If all this sounds like voodoo accounting, well, all accounting can sound that way sometimes. But remember this: Even though homeowners have defaulted on sub-prime mortgages, there is a house at the bottom of it all and that has real value.