After Enron and other corporate scandals, there's widespread agreement that financial reporting needs to get better. But it's no simple task to improve the way companies recognize revenue, account for expenses and value their assets.
"This is full employment for me and my gang," joked Robert Herz, chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which is charged with setting the standards that accountants, auditors, lenders and investors rely on to produce and evaluate financial reports.
He was at the University of Tampa on Friday morning updating a group of Tampa Bay area business people on the board's activities and listening to their ideas for overhauling financial reporting.
One of the thorniest issues on the board's agenda is how and when to count revenue, which can determine whether a company is perceived as a hot growth stock or a laggard. Herz said 180 U.S. accounting rules, regulations and pronouncements have something to say on the subject.
"It's like attempting to simplify the tax code," he said. The process includes gathering public comment.
The board is working on accounting rules related to a variety of hot issues from stock-based compensation to pensions. For example, the recently approved Medicare coverage for prescription drugs will require changes in the way companies account for their health care obligations to retirees.
Simultaneously the board is immersed in a project to bring U.S. and international accounting standards into harmony. In some cases, one or the other standard will be adopted, but in others, a whole new standard will have to be written, Herz said.
The board wants to move away from detailed rules to standards based on broad principles, requiring accountants to exercise professional judgment. However, Herz said accountants don't like the idea.
"People are scared of being second-guessed," he said.
A panel of Tampa Bay business people told Herz they want more uniformity in the way retailers report sales for stores open at least a year and the way companies account for the liability when they sign long-term leases.
"Pension accounting is a nightmare," complained Budd Bugatch, an analyst for Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg.
One reason accounting rules are getting so much attention is that federal law now requires chief executives and chief financial officers of public companies to certify financial reports. If the reports are inaccurate, the officers can be held liable and sent to prison or fined under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
"People are now interested in accounting," said Shirley Payne, chief accountant for TECO Energy Inc. in Tampa. She said company managers want to understand what's behind the numbers. "They're willing to sit through tedious seminars."
Although private companies are not covered by the law, banks and insurance companies are pressuring them to comply, said Kathy Zehr, chief financial officer for Beall's Inc. in Bradenton. She said Beall's has no objection.
"We just think it's smart," she said.
_ Helen Huntley can be reached at huntleysptimes.com or (727) 893-8230.