IFRS 8 – the investment community says it’s not ‘fit for purpose’

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I've spent a lot of time working on what is now called International Financial Reporting Standard 8. This is the new standard on 'segment reporting' - which is the way in which a multi-national corporation reports the various elements within it that make up the whole.

IFRS 8 is, in reality, the US standard SFAS 131. In practice you could not spot the differences if you tried. Which does, in effect mean that it allows the management of an entity to report segmentally on whatever basis it uses internally, using whatever accounting policies it uses internally, and without need for the resulting figures to relate to the annual audited accounts.

I don't like that, I admit. To put it another way: I think that means that IFRS 8 entirely misses the criteria for being a standard for two reasons:

  1. It reports management data, but these are financial accounting statements. They're not the same thing;
  2. There is no standard: management can do what it likes. The whole purpose of a standard is to prevent that and ensure that reliable, consistent and comparable data is available to assist third party decision makes appraise the activities of an entity.

I've argued for something quite different on behalf of Publish What You Pay, The Tax Justice Network and many others. This argument says that we need mandatory country-by-country disclosure of what is happening inside multinational companies. The logic is simple. Geography is fixed. Risk arises locally. Stakeholders are local. Taxes, markets and regulation is local. So are customers. So local is a basis for decision making (and don't believe a word of it when anyone says otherwise - they've just forgotten the customer is king - which is always a bad sign).

More than that, mandatory disclosure of data under global headings gives comparable long term data that means the development of a company can be plotted in relation to its markets. Which seems pretty fundamental to monitoring likely investment return.

Finally, and not escaping my attention is the fact that complex groups structures in tax havens and other locations almost always means poor governance, which is precisely why we want to know about them.

The IASB decided otherwise last July. The coalitions I have worked for persuaded them that this should not be the end of the story though. And now others are beginning to agree. Accountancy Age has revisited this issue three times of late. Now the Sunday Times has joined in. They have noted that the Investment Management Association, National Association of Pension Funds and the Association of British Insurers all agree that:

"The thinking behind IFRS 8 is a harmful precedent for any standard. IFRS 8 assumes a US view of corporate governance: that directors 'oversee' management performance on behalf of shareholders.

"What is lacking is a fully objective economic purpose . . . we see standards being potentially lowered, to the detriment of shareholders."

As the Sunday Times notes:

The NAPF, the IMA and the ABI have complained that the provisions of IFRS 8 could make it harder for investors to understand what is happening inside companies.

That might be a classic understatement. In fact, I note at least one of them has called the new standard 'idiotic'.

Watch this space to see how things develop.