The chairman of KPMG International, Michael Andrew, believes the U.S. runs the risk of being passed by in the global financial markets unless it commits to International Financial Reporting Standards, or IFRS.
"The global financial crisis has really highlighted the need for complete transparency across global markets to give confidence to investors," he said in a recent interview.
"The question you have to ask yourself is why hasn't this occurred? It's fair to say historically, while national accounting standards have been a significant advancement, they have at times been a little academic and a little subject to political interference, say, in Europe," Andrew said.
"Those days are well past now and the concerns that the U.S. had initially, quite rightly, are now disappearing," Andrew said. "There is much more of a business focus and much more of an investor focus in the formulation of accounting standards now. It is, in my view, inevitable that the U.S. participate and contribute toward the development of these standards and start to converge U.S. GAAP. Otherwise, it's going to find that the whole world will have changed except the U.S.," he said.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently delayed its decision on whether or not to incorporate IFRS into the U.S. financial reporting system and has sent some mixed signals about its intentions. SEC chair Mary Schapiro recently said that she will not be rushed to make a decision on IFRS. "I don't feel pressure at all to go along with anybody," she told Reuters at the Practicing Law Institute's SEC Speaks conference in late February. "I feel pressure to do the right thing for U.S. markets and U.S. investors."
However, the SEC also recently gave encouraging signs that it will ultimately allow IFRS to be incorporated into the U.S. financial reporting system, even though it has pushed back the decision. SEC chief accountant James Kroeker said in February that he was hopeful his staff could put forward a model for doing just that.
More than 100 countries, including Europe, use accounting rules from the International Accounting Standards Board and are waiting to see if the U.S., the world's biggest capital market with up to 12,000 listed companies, adopts them, too.
However, Andrew believes that global investors are going to demand adherence to an international system. "These days, when capital is mobile and looking for different stock markets, it's incredibly important to the U.S. capital markets that international investors are able to look at and compare alternative companies operating in the same sector," he pointed out.
On a related front, Andrew also is seeing more international coordination when it comes to tax enforcement between the U.S. and other countries involved with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. "It's fair to say historically the U.S., the IRS, has been almost a thought leader and a stimulator to a lot of the OECD's work, but I think over the past 10 years there's been much more activity from all of the OECD countries to try to get a common standard in this area," Andrew said.
"While gaps remain, it's relatively consistent now across the world, at least in the major countries, on what are the appropriate principles that you apply to international profit allocation," Andrew added. The other question, he said, "is how you actually tax those profits. That, he said, is "where you see a bit of tax competition, some of which is fair and some of which is unfair."
As a result, there is now a backlash in the U.S. and in Europe regarding the use of tax havens and tax incentives and concessions by some nations "as really being an unfair trade or foreign investment activity," Andrew said. "You're seeing significant push back," he said. "Some of the pressure that the U.S. is bringing to bear on a number of the old Swiss banks about secrecy and confidentiality is really starting to up the pressure on those countries who don't conform with international tax principles."