Sing it, Warren.
Many companies, particularly in the high-tech industry, have railed against a current Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) proposal to account for employee stock options as expenses because it would increase the reported cost of these options and make their financial results appear worse. FASB isn't in the business of outcome-based decisions, but Congress sure as heck is. So the House, perhaps noting after the accounting scandals of the past decade and in the face of disgust over exploding executive compensation, recognizes that some further tightening of the rules is perhaps inevitable.
As Buffett notes, though, what the House bill has in mind is simply bizarre. It accepts the fact that options are compensation and, therefore, should be expensed, but then it comes up with the gimmick that companies must only expense for the five highest-paid executive officers at each company. Further, the pricing mechanism that the House bill proposes to be used is one that assumes that the price of the underlying stock never fluctuates.
Great. Show me the company stock that never fluctuates. Everything fluctuates. Buffett's verdict: "A for imagination... flat-out F for logic."
And just so his point isn't lost in the inevitable recriminations of the "he doesn't know how it works" or "he's just jealous" crowd, Buffett notes that his position on accounting for options has fealty from the following: all seven members of FASB, all four of the big accounting firms, and legions of investment professionals (I'm sure he was including me in that assessment. I'm just sure of it.).
That House members wish to ignore the voices of these folks who know a thing or two about accounting (the standard setters as well as the largest, most knowledgeable consumers thereof) is simply frightening. There is a good reason that FASB is an independent group not beholden to political interests: because it can make decisions for the benefit of the polity of accounting consumers without consideration of the special interests.
The tone Warren Buffett uses in this editorial is a little more acid than I've seen in the past. He notes the silliness of counting only the top five execs' bonuses as expenses, then also notes that if Congress wishes to take on the roll as the chief scorekeeper for accounting that it had better clean up the hash of its own financial reporting. He noted that current standards allowed managers to "lie." Not "fudge," not "adjust," not "adopt looser accounting standards." Lie.
Warren Buffett has it right -- accountants are supremely armed to make accounting rules. Politicians, on the other hand, are not. That such a bill exists at all simply points out the madness of the notion of having Congress dictate what are generally accepted accounting principles and what are not.
Bill Mann owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway.
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