I was at the IASB round table discussion on the future governance arrangements of the IASB and its trustees in London yesterday. The paper we were discussing is here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly I was the only representative of civil society to speak during the session I attended. I made these points:
1. The IASC Trustees say (page 2) that "the IASB [must be] appropriately protected from particular national, sectoral or special interest pleading". Many of the others who spoke, from firms like PWC, KPMG, BDO and UBS stressed the importance to them that the IASB keep its independence and its non-political status. I made the exact opposite point: as far as civil society is concerned the IASB is the captive of a very narrow interest group, and implicit in that is a very narrow political focus. It is its concentration on the interests of those who participate in market trading to the isolation of all others that troubles us.
2. The IASB says it has a duty to a wide range of entities, including SMEs, and to all users of accounts. And yet in the proposals being made no consideration was being made of the interests of SMEs and there was no indication of the acceptance of any duty to any group other than those participating in financial markets. As a result, in my opinion, the IASC Trustees were failing to fulfil their mandate in making the recommendations in the paper.
3. The IASC Trustees recognised the need for wider, and guaranteed, geographic representation in the membership of the IASB in the proposals they have made. But as far as we were concerned giving separate representation to the capital markets of North America, Europe and Asia / Oceania made little odds: they comprised one economic bloc. The other is the developing world. I argued for automatic representation for Africa and Latin America as well, currently ignored by the proposals.
Of course I was out of step with the other commentators: there's no news in that. But that also gave me the chance to make a fair amount of the running in the subsequent debate.
Several things emerged:
1. The IASC Trustees thought I was asking for disclosure beyond their remit, such as environmental reporting. Quite why was baffling: I had made no mention of them and had made clear I was a chartered accountant. I had, of course, also mentioned country by country reporting, an issue with which they should be familiar since they had met Publish What You Pay. I think it was simply assumed that NGOs couldn't possibly engage on the issue of financial reporting. They were wrong. I made clear I was asking for financial reporting of use to all stakeholders, not just those actively engaged in markets.
2. They suggested that I was looking in the wrong place and to the wrong body in that case: KPMG supported them in that argument, saying it best the IASB concentrated on meeting the needs of the market before looking to address other issues. But, I stressed that their mandate did extend to others, and I pointed out that the need of stakeholders for reliable financial information has been well recognised since the mid 1970s when the UK's Accounting Standards Steering Committee issued a document called The Corporate Report (regrettably no copy on the web that I can find) which it could be said argued for much of the information I was now requesting. I happened to have a copy to hand. But the IASB persisted, saying it was for others to deliver that. When I asked who those others might be no suggestions were available.
3. They have conceded that they may have to change their recommendation to include specific requirement that Board members be recruited form both Africa and Latin America in future.
I know that my arguments hit home: in discussion with IASC Trustees after the formal session closed it was clear that they knew and understood my arguments. On the record the comment was different. Why was that, I wonder?
And as interesting, one of the bodies that it is suggested have a seat on the new IASB monitoring group was represented in the room (but as an observer, and as such without speaking rights, in the absurd procedure used by the IASB that ensures only those prior vetted by them can speak). He did know of my work on country-by-country reporting and the work of Publish What You Pay on reporting on that basis for the extractive industries. His comments were direct:
- This type of reporting would help tackle corruption
- It would increase fiscal accountability of governments
- The information would, if universally disclosed, considerably enhance the quality of information available on the operation of the global economy
- It would increase the transparency of markets
- It would reduce volatility in markets
- It would make the operations of markets more accountable
- It would as a result increase shareholder value as well as meet the needs of many other stakeholders.
The arguments I and others present can be appreciated by some but not by the IASB it seems. Why is it that the IASB has no desire to fulfil the mandate it has been given? Could it be that it is not acting in the public interest , as required? Or might it be that its absolute absence of democratic accountability (the words, near enough, of the ICAEW representative present) might in fact allow it to work, as I suggested, in the interests of a very narrow group indeed within society whilst ignoring all others?
If that is so this process is not working. I can hope that the proposed monitoring group might remedy this defect. But as is obvious, what is said in private is not what is said in public. I'm not optimistic. But I'll continue to work for change, none the less.
Curiously the IASC trustees present wished me good luck in my work. I don't want luck. I want change. And they can deliver it. It is time they did.