Accounting: the new world order

The SEC is proposing to move firms towards using international accounting standards:

The Securities and Exchange Commission voted unanimously to seek public comment for 60 days on a "road map" to move from U.S. to international accounting. SEC Chairman Christopher Cox predicted U.S. regulators likely would vote again "late this year" on whether to endorse the plan.

The plan calls for early, voluntary use of international accounting standards by large U.S. multinational firms in 2010, followed by an SEC vote in 2011 on whether to require all U.S. companies to make the switch. The decision would rest on whether key changes occur by then, including international accounting standard-setters obtaining independent funding.

Under the timetable outlined by the SEC, the switch to international accounting could be staggered, starting with large U.S. companies in 2014, followed by mid-sized companies in 2015 and small companies in 2016.

"The proposed roadmap is cautious and careful," Mr. Cox said at a public meeting to consider the matter. SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter called the plan a momentous one that shows the U.S. is serious about considering a movement toward international accounting standards.

However, Ms. Walter said the U.S. should vote in 2011 to approve the switch "if and only if" certain conditions are met by then. The plan sets seven "milestones" to be met, including obtaining an independent, stable source of funding for the London-based International Accounting Standards Board.

The "road map" also calls for continued collaboration between the IASB and the Connecticut-based U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board to narrow differences between U.S. and international accounting rules; and changes to the ways in which U.S. accountants are educated and trained.

The transition may well be messier for small firms than for large firms; large firms have more complicated finances, but they also have the means to hire top-notch accountants with loads of international experience on their staff.  An even bigger issue is what happens when the SEC disagrees with the IASB.  Currently, it has the power to overrule the nominally private FASB that sets accounting standards for the US.  It will not have so much pull with the international board.
Overall, however, this makes sense.  The difference between international and American accounting standards has cost US exchanges business in recent years, as companies decline to keep two sets of books.  And it has made it somewhat harder to compare the performance of American firms with their foreign counterparts, which makes global capital markets marginally less efficient than they should be.
When the first accounting scandal hits, however, stand by for the wingnuts on both left and right wailing about the tyranny of global finance.