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» Microsoft's Laux: Multiple Challenges Face Accounting Profession
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Microsoft's Laux: Multiple Challenges Face Accounting Profession
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Accounting Policy & Practice Report
In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg BNA, Robert Laux, senior director of financial accounting and reporting at Microsoft Corp., laid out the major issues in accounting rulemaking—with a particular focus on their potential impacts on multi-national companies. The main topics included the SEC decision on U.S. domestic use of IFRS, and top projects of the standard-setters, including revenue-recognition, financial instruments, lease accounting, and intangible assets. Steve Burkholder, a Bloomberg BNA staff correspondent, conducted the interview—an edited version of which follows.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board and the International Accounting Standards Board continue their long-running work to converge on a single set of accounting rules for global use.
Concurrently, many U.S. companies, audit firms, and investors await a highly-anticipated decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission on whether and, if so, how to incorporate international financial reporting standards into the reporting system for U.S. public companies.
If the SEC decides on some form of an officially prescribed use of IFRS in this country, what kind of an impact might that have on a large U.S.-based multinational company such as Microsoft?
Let me try and speculate on what may be the decision coming from the SEC although of course I don't know anything more than anybody else. The SEC had a staff paper that they produced, which talked about a dual process, if you will, of endorsement and convergence. In a speech at the AICPA's SEC [developments conference] a couple of years ago, one of the SEC staff used the word "condorsement." I think that's a good word because it aptly describes this process which is a combination of endorsement by the FASB with some convergence work. And no matter what the decision is—unless it's a decision not to go down a path of international standards (which I don't think would be the answer) —I think we need to do something to incorporate international standards in U.S. [generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP]. If that does happen, it probably will be, in my opinion, like a condorsement [approach].
That would have quite a big impact on U.S. companies. Under this approach, the IASB will be taking on new projects and the FASB will be heavily involved, and then will have an endorsement mechanism that is given to them [the FASB] by the power of the SEC to endorse what the IASB does.
Convergence: Longer Than 5-7 Years.
I don't think that's going to have a really big impact on companies, maybe elongating the process a little bit. I think the bigger impact is on the so-called convergence area. These are like legacy accounting issues that we have in U.S. GAAP that may be in IFRS but the answers are slightly different, or there's just not IFRS guidance applicable or on point. The SEC staff paper indicated maybe a five- to seven-year time period for the FASB to look at these differences and try to incorporate the IFRS standards. However, I believe that may take longer than five to seven years— that's where there can be a somewhat big impact on companies.
Let me give you two examples. One is stock-based compensation, a joint project, but there are some differences between the U.S. GAAP and IFRS standards. One standard has to do with graded vesting and the other has to do with the way income taxes are recognized on stock-based compensation. Those can be significant differences, and if a company needs to change, that could have a significant impact.
Another issue is component depreciation, or depreciation in general.
Under IFRS, component depreciation is required. Under U.S. GAAP, it's an option that most companies do not take on—that could be a significant change. For instance, FinREC, which used to be [the Accounting Standards Executive Committee, of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants], did a project—it's almost 10 years-plus ago—I was actually on the committee at the time–which considered having a requirement for component depreciation. Our feedback was that people were opposed to the idea.
So I think you're going to have those same kinds of discussions with these legacy differences, I call them, with U.S. GAAP versus IFRS that I think will have somewhat of an impact, to a big impact, on U.S.-based multinational companies.
Big, Tough Decision for SEC.
I think the SEC has a big, tough decision on their hands. We'll talk about that a little later in this interview. But the issue with that is— the ultimate goal—and it was in the SEC staff paper [of November 2011]—was incorporating IFRS in U.S. GAAP, with the aim to say after so many years (and I believe it's going to be more than seven years), the goal was to say that if you're in conformity with U.S. GAAP, you're also in conformity with IFRS. And that's difficult to do because of [some possible] so-called grandfathering-type of items. Maybe something could be done with what's called IFRS 1 [First-time Adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards] and the way of adopting international standards. Perhaps international standards can be slightly changed.
But some of these things that people think should be grandfathered—this is what makes it so difficult. And some would argue that, if you had these grandfathered items, then you truly do not have a global set of accounting standards if we're using different rules in the U.S. versus internationally.
I'm still a proponent of [the notion] that the world of business, of finance is international in nature, and we need to move towards a goal of having one set of high-quality global accounting standards. It's going to take us time to get there—probably a long time. And a lot of work's already been done on that.
For instance, when you bring up these grandfathering issues—yes, there are challenges and we may never get to the perfect answer. But that's not an excuse, in my opinion, for not striving to get more comparability on a global basis.
Revenue Recognition: `Going Pretty Well.'
As you know, one of the main standard-setting projects that the FASB and the IASB are working on is revenue recognition. How is that going, and how is the recently re-issued—and revised—proposal likely to affect companies?
I think the revenue recognition project is actually going pretty well. I'll have to go back to when it first started a number of years ago. As you know, standard-setting is difficult. People have a lot of opinions, and it takes time. But this has been on the agenda for a while now [
Editor's note: It was added to FASB's and IASB's agendas in 2002
]. But I remember when there were discussions of first doing this. And one of the main motivations, I believe, was to be able to converge U.S. GAAP with IFRS. U.S. GAAP has a lot of literature on revenue recognition, a lot of it [is] industry-specific. I don't know the number of references or standards on it, but people have said it's close to 200, if not over 200.
In international standards, it's really two standards and interpretations that go with them. And if you look at multiple-element arrangements, and you're not looking at the construction industry, some could argue that international accounting standards have one or two paragraphs on it.
So, this could almost be the poster child for convergence. But the point I'm trying to make is, with all that literature in U.S. GAAP, my first opinion was there's no way they're going to be able to pull this off. There's just no way that they'll come up with a general standard, or one standard, on revenue recognition. But I'll have to give the standard-setters credit here—they pretty much have been able to do that with slight disagreement with a few things in the standard. I'd also like to say that, this is probably—and I'll use the term again—poster child by the FASB staff and the IASB staff of the best way a project can be run. The staff did an outstanding job.
So, to get to your question, I think it's actually gone pretty well. The exposure draft that's out now is kind of unique, based on my experience, in that, when you have an exposure draft, you write comment letters indicating what you think about it.
Well, this exposure draft, many people and companies, including us at Microsoft are seeing it as very close to final. We are considering the implications for Microsoft, and what needs to be done? Our belief is that the rule will have a big impact on how we look at revenue recognition, when it's recognized. Also there may be more of an impact on our processes and procedures to make sure we're in compliance with the new standard.
But the point I'm trying to make is that, I think it's getting very close to what the final [standard] may look like. There is discussion on some issues. The two big issues that I know of, that people are really discussing, are the disclosure requirements and the transition provisions.
That's interesting, because as you know, it's been a common refrain at the FASB that sometimes the board's constituents don't follow standards during their formation as closely as they could until they see something cast in stone, or as a final standard. But this is perceived, as you say, as being close to final.
And, as you know, on the first exposure draft, there were close to a thousand comment letters, I believe. It just shows the amount that people have been engaged. Again, I'm not trying to sugar-coat it, or be self-serving, I really believe—especially in this project—the FASB and the IASB staff did a tremendous job of outreach, understanding industry-specific issues. And also outreach to users [of financial statements]. So there's been a lot of comment. And I think it's due to that we're in this shape that I described. It looks like it's close to final, in my opinion.
Resigned to On-Balance Sheet Lease Accounting.
Another joint FASB-IASB project with potentially big impact is leases. Basically, how is the draft standard being received? What kind of impact will that have on Microsoft? Going further, how might that impact compare with that on firms such as airlines, banks with many branches, shipping companies, and the big equipment leasers?
I think it's being received with mixed emotions. As you know, an exposure draft was issued, and the standard-setters are redeliberating the issues. We're expecting another exposure draft to come out.
I'll speak from the lessee side, because Microsoft is not a major lessee, but we're not much of a lessor, in essence. Our licensing of our software is under the revenue recognition standards. So we are a lessor in certain circumstances, but it's really on the lessee side. It's not going to have as much of an impact on Microsoft as [the planned standard would have] on the airlines, on banks with many branches, or, let's say, a grocery store chain with many locations or fast-food or restaurant chains that do a lot of leasing.
I believe people are resigned— I'm not sure resigned is the best word—but accept the fact that, in general, that leases will come on balance sheet. The SEC staff did a paper as a requirement, I believe, of [the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002] to look at off-balance-sheet financing, and leases was one of the larger issues that came up. The people understand that maybe it does provide more information to users if they're on balance sheet.
I know there are still some people who are strongly in disagreement with that. But I would say, in my opinion, most people are resigned.
On the lessee side, the big issue right now is the expense recognition. And under lessee accounting—and it's really operating lease accounting—today, for the most part, in very general terms, you have straight-line rent expense. I'm renting something for $1,000 a month; I'll show $1,000 of expense a month. The way the exposure draft came out is that there would be a front-loading of that expense. I don't think we need to get into the details or the technicalities of how that occurs. It's looking at the liabilities separately from the asset, if you will. There's been a lot of feedback on that. The standard-setters are taking another look at that and it's my understanding they're doing outreach to constituents this month, to get prepared to talk about it soon—on the right way to approach this issue. So, that up-front expense recognition, instead of straight-line, could have a big impact on companies.
Let me just say, from a Microsoft perspective, as I said, we're not a big lessor. So we haven't been following it as closely as it doesn't have as much of an impact on us. But it looks like the lessor model is very complicated. I think—and I could be wrong—in that once people dig into that, you may be hearing more discourse from constituents saying, "Boy, this is pretty complicated. It may be a lot of work to actually implement in practice." And hopefully there will be discussions, if that is the case. When I look at it, and say, it's not really going to impact us to any great extreme, not in a material amount, but, boy, it looks awfully complicated, the model that's being presented for lessors.
Accounting for Financial Instruments: The Challenge Continues.
Another of the highest-priority projects of the FASB and IASB is financial instruments. That project has been a challenge overall. What is the outlook for convergence on that and what kind of effect would that have on banks as well as non-banking companies?
As you said, it has been a challenge overall. It's a difficult and complicated area, as you know. One of the problems, in my opinion, is that the standard-setters were starting from different points—they were leapfrogging each other,—in discussing the issue. That makes it very difficult to get one converged standard for financial instruments, when the IASB is working on something before the FASB, or vice-versa.
You can really see three areas they're working on. The first one is classification and measurement. The second one, impairment [or accounting for loan, or credit, losses]. The third one, hedging. And both the FASB and the IASB are in different spots.
This is going to be tough. You can almost look at those three components, as three separate, huge projects in and of themselves. So this shows how challenging this project is.
On recognition and measurement, what makes it even more challenging is that the IASB already has a standard out there, IFRS 9, on recognition and measurement [of financial instruments]. They delayed the effective date on it for a couple of more years —I believe, until 2015—and the European Commission has not even endorsed the standard. But there are other constituents, from what I understand, for instance, Australia, where companies have actually adopted it early. I don't have first-hand knowledge of this.
So you can see that that's a difficult proposition for the IASB. They want to work on convergence and work with the FASB, but if some of their constituents have already adopted the standard, you have to have some sympathy for the IASB and those who adopted, saying, "We adopted this. You're going to make us change again?"
But the IASB has said, in the spirit of convergence and how important this part of it is, that they would do limited reopening of IFRS 9—most of it, I believe, for the impact on insurance companies and different things like that. So, both boards are working on that issue.
The Securities Microsoft Holds: Where Are Fair Value Changes to Go?
When I'm breaking these up into these three categories: This one [on recognition and measurement], where currently the IASB rules are, and where the FASB is heading, actually would have a potentially significant impact on Microsoft.
We have a lot of investments in equity instruments—ownerships in companies, given our cash portfolio and investment portfolio. Currently under U.S. GAAP, any mark-to-market changes, fair value adjustments are shown as a component of other comprehensive income. Well, under the proposal, they would be shown as components of net income. And given the way the market moves, and our investment portfolio, we could have some potentially significant variability in net income.
We're a little concerned about that and have disagreements about the way the standard-setters are looking at, thinking about instruments. I don't think it's necessary for us to get into detail, but they're looking at both the characteristics of a financial instrument. We think that maybe the business model is really the important thing—of what companies are doing with these securities— we hold them, for the most part, for long-term strategic purposes.
Microsoft believes that a user should be informed of fair-market value changes. It's an economic event, phenomenon. But especially with the new standard on the presentation of other comprehensive income, we think it will be transparent to users. I can't speak for users. They need to speak for themselves, and can expertly speak for themselves. The volatility that goes through net income, I just fear that there may be a lot of users who will strip that out and say, that is not really what we want to see for your results for this quarter, for thinking about, predicting future share prices, and we're going to strip that out.
So it's just kind of a conundrum. Do you really want that volatility to go through the income statement? We want it to be transparent, but believe it's transparent currently in other comprehensive income.
Let me quickly go to the other two, impairment and hedging. Impairment has been difficult, as you know. The FASB and the IASB are working together and trying to come up with a converged solution. This three-bucket approach still needs a lot of meat on the bones for a lot of us to understand it, but they are working on it.
Hedging, I perceive they're even further apart. The IASB has a project that they're probably going to finalize soon, if they haven't already. And I think the finalization [involves] putting a staff draft for people to [study]. But it's really kind of a business-model type of thought process for hedging, or having hedge accounting, and it's quite different from what the FASB has been looking at or what their proposal was in their original financial instruments exposure draft [
Editor's Note — That first FASB proposal was issued in May 2010
]. So, they're quite a ways away in that, in my opinion.
If I go through the three [elements of the joint instruments project], I give them credit again, because they're working on trying to converge. On recognition and measurement, there's a lot of convergence there. They're working around the edges, if you will. You've heard my or Microsoft's disagreement with some of their conclusions, but the conclusions are what they are. Impairment, a little farther apart, but they're working hard on it. Hedging, I think they've got a ways to go.
Just to comment on the last part of your question. Obviously, [there would be] a significant impact on banks, financial institutions. That's their business. Just as revenue recognition is potentially going to have a significant impact on companies like Microsoft, it's just obvious that [the planned financial instruments standard] will have a big impact on financial institutions.
Instruments: Potentially Big Effect on Non-Banking Firms.
The point that I try to make, however, is also that it will have a potentially big impact on non-banking companies, like Microsoft. Sometimes I get a little concerned that there's not enough attention paid to that issue. And it really goes back to the issue I discussed previously. This tentative conclusion that you've made [on investments in equity securities] could potentially have a significant impact on the variability of Microsoft's net income due to market changes. Is that really the best way to inform users of our financial statements?
And there are other sub-issues, like how complicated is the impairment model going to be? Are you making it a model based on the way financial institutions work? Or are you looking at actual non-banking companies and how they think about it, and making sure you don't make it overly complex for them? That's another one of my concerns.
At times, it feels that maybe they're just focusing too much on the banking industry and financial institutions. It's very important to them. I understand why that is, but it's important to point out that it will also have significant impacts on non-banking companies and they need to keep that in mind.
End-Dates for Key Projects, and Rules' Effective Dates.
For the projects we just talked about, what might be the end-dates for them, if you can prognosticate? That would be the three highest-priority projects for both boards, excluding insurance contracts, which is a topic of more immediate concern for the IASB. And what do we know about possible effective dates for the planned final standards?
Again, we're talking about revenue recognition, leases and financial instruments. I'm leaving off what some call the fourth project, insurance. On revenue recognition, I believe they're very close. The comment letters are in. Roundtables are coming up. The one at the FASB is [set for April 26]. So they are going to get that feedback, and they need to do redeliberations. [Editors' Note—He cited reported statements by FASB Chairman Leslie Seidman and by IASB Chairman Hans Hoogervorst on work plans]. And maybe the schedule [for completion of the revenue effort] is by year end. It could leak over into the beginning of calendar year 2013, in my opinion, but probably not much. I think that's close to being finalized by the end of the year, or close to the end of the year.
If we go project-by-project, and just talk about this one [revenue recognition], its effective date, a lot of people believe will be no earlier than three years from now. You need to give people at least three years to implement a standard. And the math on this—and let's say it's finalized by Jan. 1, 2013—then it would be, we believe, no earlier than January of 2016, at the earliest. In essence, both standard-setters have signaled that when they said [last year] that these standards would be effective no earlier than 2015—as we know, that schedule slipped a little bit, and I would say no earlier than 2016.
Leasing Standard: `At Least Another Year Away.'
That's a description of revenue recognition, which is the closest [to completion]. If I were prognosticating, I would say leases is at least another year away. So let's say a possibility—and this is just me guessing—of it being finalized in 2013. Let's say by Jan. 1, 2014, with maybe an effective date of 2017.
As for financial instruments, especially when you think of the three [parts of the project], there's a lot of work still to be done, so I couldn't even guess on that one.
Let me just make one final comment. We're struggling here at Microsoft, and it was actually in our comment letter on revenue recognition, and it's been a few years now, looking at what the possible implication would be if Microsoft adopted IFRS, or IASB standards. And that was in the context, as you know, if we go back three to four years, five years. It seemed at the time there was more momentum for an actual, pure adoption of the IASB standards. So, we looked at a project of what that impact would be. And, as you know from other companies, it would have been a significant undertaking.
But what we learned, when we did very high-level work, was how difficult it is to go back in history and redo the accounting for something. What the point we're making here at Microsoft is that—especially on revenue recognition, as an example—we think there could be potentially significant process, and procedural changes, system changes, that we need to make. And we think it's important that those systems and procedures and processes are in place before we make the entry.
Preparing Systems for Retrospective Application.
Let me describe this to you, because it's kind of weird to describe. It has to do with looking at the adoption technique of a standard, whether its going to be prospective or retrospective. If you go retrospective, you need to restate two years. In that context, we would like to have a system in place, prior to having to restate those two years, so that we can have parallel systems. If you do the math on that, it's more than three years, because you're talking about getting your systems in place, which, as we know in companies, is a very difficult proposition and could take up to two years. Then if you have to restate for two additional years, you're at four, close to five years.
I know the standard-setters want to get these out and get them effective. They're important standards that we need to do new accounting on. But there is that issue with the transition method. And, if there is, maybe [under] a modified prospective type of treatment, I think companies would have the ability to implement these within the time line of this three years that the standard-setters may be looking at. Even though three years sounds like a lot of time, given the requirement to do retrospective adoption and restating two additional back years, it's going to be very difficult, in my opinion, for companies to get there in a three-year time period.
SEC Staff's `Condorsement' Idea: `An Elegant Solution.'
These questions pertain to how the Securities and Exchange Commission might proceed on the big question of incorporation of IFRS in the U.S. reporting system. You already touched on this back in the earlier minutes of this interview. Do you have a sense of the how —if the SEC does make a definitive decision on IFRS use in this country—and the when?
Just like anyone else, I don't have any extra insight. You know that as well as I know that. I'll tell you what I would like to see, speaking personally, not for Microsoft. I am a proponent of what we discussed as "condorsement" [in] the SEC staff paper. The Financial Accounting Foundation [the parent group of the FASB and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board] has made some comments on that and, in my opinion, generally accepted what the SEC [staff] said, with some suggestions for some potential changes. But not overhauling the entire thing, or disagreeing with it.
I think it's a somewhat elegant solution. And it gets back to the issue that I'm a firm believer that the economy is world-wide in nature. We're interconnected. Just look at the contagion issues we have, where something may happen in Greece, or [elsewhere] in Europe, and the impact that could have on us in the United States.
SEC Needs to Give a Signal—`Soon.'
I strongly believe that the SEC needs to give some kind of indication of where their thinking is and needs to do it soon, just because of the uncertainty in a number of different areas. Uncertainty from a company's perspective about what we should be doing. Uncertainty from the IASB's perspective, where they have other constituents, saying, "Why all this U.S. stuff? It seems like you're ignoring us at times." (I use those terms loosely).
So, if I had my druthers, I think that the condorsement or an endorsement mechanism with further convergence on legacy-type standards that the FASB would look at is the way to go. I seriously believe that the SEC needs to come out with some indication of that within this calendar year, preferably within a couple of months. And you well know what the chief accountant at the SEC, Jim Kroeker, has indicated.
I'll go on a little bit of a tangent. I hear some people saying, well, it's an election year. While I understand that, this issue hasn't – thankfully, in my opinion – got into the presidential election debate. And I don't think it deserves to be in that debate. We have much bigger issues, in my humble opinion. I generally do not see the president and the presidential candidates on the Republican side talking about U.S. adoption of international standards. I don't think I've heard them mention it once. I would really like to see an indication from the SEC, this year, sooner rather than later. I think it's important for the U.S. It's important for the international community. It's important for the IASB.
Where do you think that indication might come from, if it does come from the SEC? They have their due process considerations, of course. Would it come from the commission or come from the staff?
I'm probably not the one to answer that, but I'll try to answer, based on my layman understanding of the issue. It's such an important decision, and such a big decision, that of course you have to have the commissioners weighing in on it. And I think you need to have due process.
Even the staff coming out with a paper that says, "We had the previous paper— the condorsement paper. We received feedback. And here's our current thinking that we're sharing with the commissioners and we're getting the commissioners' feedback on that." And I also think that, just like with anything else the SEC does, it will be subject to due process. Not knowing the rules of procedure like the back of my hand, when they issue something, there's always due process— that people can comment on and I think they'll encourage comment on this. I don't know the technicalities or nuances. Is it technically required that the commission actually vote to do something?
It's such a big decision, a critical decision that I think all of us would want the commissioners' opinion on it. Now it may not be a formal vote but I don't know the rules of procedure that well to definitively comment.
At FASB, Which Projects Off the Back Burner?
On the FASB and its potential agenda, at its March 23 meeting, the board's Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council held lengthy breakout discussion sessions to home in on which out of the so-called "back-burner projects" should be the next major efforts of the U.S. board – that is, once the high-priority joint projects make it into the home stretch. Pension accounting and financial instruments with traits of liabilities and equity were high on the lists of a majority of participants. What do you believe should be on the FASB's new, short, must-do-next list and why?
It's a difficult issue because we have these big convergence projects and then, once they're completed, we need to look at what's going to be done next. I'll go on the assumption that a given is to complete the convergence projects, and it's really only after those, FASB will consider what's next.
Just as a sidelight, the IASB came out with an agenda consultation asking this question formally, probably similar to what FASAC discussed in their meeting. I'll give you Microsoft's comments. We did think that [financial instruments with traits of] liabilities/equities may be an issue that needs to be looked at. It's a very difficult practice issue for the standard-setters to handle. We thought that was important.
We don't have a pension here at Microsoft. So I have to tell you that it may not be high on our radar screen, so we didn't mention [accounting for pensions]. I could understand that comment, and we didn't put it in our letter to the IASB. It would not be a high-priority project for us, but the IASB is doing work on that, and the FASB is looking at it, so there could be some convergence there. I understand that.
Seeking a Better Definition of OCI.
One other one—and I'm not sure if this came out of FASAC's discussion—but what a lot of people are talking about is that the standard-setters need to become more definitive on the definition of other comprehensive income.
That did come out actually. That was high on the list.
It's kind of connected with the conceptual framework project. You could say that this is part of the conceptual framework project. Even, you could say, a disclosure framework project may be part of that. And I know that's on people's radar screens. We also said other comprehensive income and trying to define that. That said, that's going to be a very difficult project. Very difficult to come up with a definition, because, once you define it, you say, "Well, what about things we've done in the past that are in other comprehensive income? Do we change them? Do we put more in there?" So, I think that's a tougher project than even liabilities and equity.
For Microsoft, Intangible Assets Important.
Also on the agenda paper, when you used the term "short," I think you meant it as a small number of items. One item that we're kind of passionate about here at Microsoft is intangible assets. We believe, speaking generally, we're in an information economy. We've moved from the manufacturing economy, if you will. And we're not sure what the right [accounting policy] answer is there. I don't believe we're proponents of capitalizing a lot more intangible assets. That's kind of a double-entry thought process, if that makes sense.
And here you're talking about R&D, for example?
Yes, for research and development. And maybe just more information on intangible assets. What we suggested—and this would be a longer-term project—we believe it's important that, because intangible assets and intellectual capital, especially for a company like Microsoft, have a significant impact on our value—it is our most significant value driver—the accounting standards really have not kept up with that change in the economy. So we believe it's important for the standard-setters to look at that.
What we didn't want to do is prejudge what the answer is, because it could be disclosure. It could be going into areas like key performance indicators, which is difficult for the standard-setters to go in, especially in the U.S., because the SEC is the keeper, if you will, of management's discussion and analysis, not the FASB. But even in the disclosure framework project, the FASB, as a second part of that, has said that they'll look at possible integration of management's discussion and analysis with the financial statements and footnotes.
Now, of course, you need the FASB and the SEC and other constituents to cooperate. I'm a strong proponent that we need to go in that direction. To answer your question definitively, the third [topic] that we pointed out here at Microsoft is intangible assets. So, in summary, agree on liabilities and equity; understand that pensions is not an issue for us; other comprehensive income; conceptual framework; disclosure framework. And as a longer-term project, and maybe it's a research project, intangible assets.
You have been active for many years on the Committee of Corporate Reporting of Financial Executives International. Do you have any indication of what projects CCR would like to see the FASB tackle next?
First, I wanted to be careful [and say] I'm not speaking for FEI or the Committee on Corporate Reporting. But I'll give you my opinion from interacting with the group. I think it's somewhat similar to what was discussed at FASAC. And, as you know, there are members of FEI and the Committee on Corporate Reporting that are actually members of FASAC. For the CCR and FEI, the disclosure framework and disclosure issues are a big issue. Conceptual framework is a high[-priority] issue. There's a belief that we need to finalize and update the conceptual framework so there is a blueprint, if you will, of how to go about in setting standards and what to think about. I would say definition of other comprehensive income is important, and the FEI/CCR commented on that in their response to the proposal on the display of other comprehensive income.
I believe pension accounting is important to some CCR companies, and that would come up. So I think it's pretty consistent.
The one thing I want to add, and this also came up in the IASB's agenda paper, is with these huge convergence projects that we're working on—revenue recognition, leases and financial instruments—there's a lot of change going on. And maybe a period of calm is necessary for companies to actually implement these and make sure that they're implemented correctly and consistently, which by necessity, groups will need to talk about the right way to implement things.
Bloomberg BNA: Back when the IASB first saw its standards being adopted by the European Union countries, through the European Commission, they talked about having a "stable platform."
That's the term. So maybe we need a mini-stable platform for a number of years because what we're working on right now are just significant changes. So I would say that's another, in my opinion, another commentary that you'll hear from FEI and CCR.
One FASB project on which the board's chairman, Leslie Seidman, as well as the SEC staff, have mentioned recently in public discussion is the disclosure framework. The aim and primary focus of that effort are to make footnotes to the financial statements more effective. Over the years, companies have complained about what they call "disclosure overload." Do you see that disclosure overload is a problem? Do you believe the focus in that project is an appropriate focus?
I like to use a slightly different term—instead of disclosure overload, I like to use the term disclosure effectiveness. Sometimes the term disclosure overload has some baggage. People read into it and have some negative associations. When I go into disclosure overload, what I get concerned about is there's so much disclosure, that maybe the really important items that are being disclosed may be getting lost in a sea of information. In our day-to-day lives, it's almost information overload. It really gets to disclosure effectiveness. My opinion is this should be priority one.
There's a lot of complaints that some of what we're doing in financial reporting seems like a compliance exercise, not a communication exercise which we can't let happen to our profession. Our profession's responsibility to the world is to communicate transparently. That means we need a lot of work in disclosures.
I'm encouraged that the FASB has a project on their agenda. They're working with [the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group], the group that advises the European Commission. The IASB is also following this closely. I am actually a member of the Disclosure Framework Working Group. I believe it's important that the FASB is looking at it.
I believe it's also important that its not just the standard-setters looking at it but also the constituents should be heavily involved in the process. I think that is FASB's intention. I would like to see that happen sooner rather than later. So we're going to have to see, when their document [a discussion paper, scheduled for release in the second quarter] comes out, what it says. I am a little cautious that this is just such a big issue, and people were looking for significant change here. I'm not necessarily saying that there will be a decrease in disclosures, but there will be, I hope, a much more effective disclosure package. There's such a lot of expectations resting on this project so it's very, very important that constituents are intensely involved. We as preparers; users – and really the purpose of financial reporting is for the users – and, to a slightly lesser extent, but they're also involved, the auditing community, we experience this first-hand every day and have a lot of real-life experiences as preparers, users and auditors. I think we can add a lot to this project and help standard-setters really think about this issue. I think that's happening and I'd like to see more of that.
Wrapping up here, are there any other issues you'd like to comment on or questions you'd like to raise?
I touched on this in a couple of my comments, and I don't want to come over as self-serving or sugar-coating it. That truly is not my intention. I did an industry fellowship at the FASB, so I actually worked there for two years. And it was a great experience. I just want to give the FASB and the IASB, and the standard-setters credit. At times I don't think they get the credit they deserve in a very difficult job, and of trying to incorporate everybody's disparate and strongly held views. It was really an eye-opener for me, being on the other side and working there.
That said, at times, the standard-setters may get isolated in their theoretical world and need to really work hard on seeing what's going out in the day-to-day operations of what users are doing with the information, and what's going on at companies. They're trying hard at that. They just need to constantly try harder on that.
But the point I'm trying to make is, I just feel, and having worked there, that at times it's a thankless, very difficult job. And I just wanted to say that they deserve some credit for what they've done.
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