The rule-setting board for corporate accounting has a rocky history of bumping up against lawmakers often acting at the behest of powerful business interests. It has been criticized by some as spineless in the face of pressure from Congress.
But the Financial Accounting Standards Board has been lobbying to underline its independence as a private-sector body. The FASB's parent this spring hired K&L Gates, a big law and lobbying firm. Officials of the parent, the Financial Accounting Foundation, and the firm met last month with key lawmakers.
The foundation spent $120,000 in 2008 and $40,000 in the first quarter of this year on outside lobbyists, which also included Morrison Public Affairs Group, according to reports filed with the House clerk's office. By contrast, the accounting foundation reported no outside lobbying expenditures from 2003 through 2007.
Robert Herz, who has been FASB chairman since 2002, is addressing the National Press Club for the first time Friday. He is expected to suggest approaches to overhauling financial regulation as Congress works on revamping the rule book.
It's "great" that FASB is pushing the message of its political independence in Washington, but the impact likely will be a drop in the bucket against the banking industry, said Michael Granof, an accounting professor at the University of Texas. The Financial Services Roundtable, a group representing more than 100 big banks, brokerages and insurance companies, spent nearly $2.3 million lobbying in the first quarter.
"It's money that talks," Granof said.
FASB spokesman Neal McGarity said the lobbying comes in an "extraordinary environment ... (where) we felt it was very important to heighten the education effort towards stakeholders and policymakers."
A lobbyist from K&L Gates who has been working on FASB's behalf referred queries to McGarity.
FASB writes the standards that guide accountants in preparing companies' financial statements. Tucked away in seaside Norwalk, Conn., it seems far from the hurly-burly of Capitol Hill. But the legislative battles and political dramas unfolding in Washington impinge heavily on the accounting board.
Since its creation in 1973, and going back to the Kennedy administration for its predecessor body, powerful interests with the help of Congress or government agencies have strong-armed FASB.
The latest example came at a March 12 House hearing on the so-called mark-to-market accounting rules. The head of the subcommittee, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., held out the threat of legislation to prod FASB to take steps that would give relief to banks. Herz agreed to have FASB swiftly issue guidelines easing the rules that force banks to value assets on their books at current prices. FASB delivered three weeks later.
Banks were forced in the aftermath of the financial crisis to write down trillions of dollars of securities tied to subprime mortgages, gutting their balance sheets even though the assets could eventually recover their value. Lawmakers pleaded for emergency accounting relief they said would help small banks, taxpayers and homeowners. Many members of the subcommittee receive campaign contributions from banks and other financial institutions.
After voting to give companies more leeway in valuing assets and reporting losses under the mark-to-market rules — financial stocks rallied. But investor advocates blasted FASB for sacrificing its independence and buckling to pressure from lawmakers carrying water for the banking industry.
Now, the industry is opposing a move last month by the board to end the use of a bookkeeping device that allowed banks to park hundreds of billions in loans off their balance sheets. It won the blessing of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said it corrects a problem with practices that were "at the epicenter" of the financial crisis.
But an array of potent interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a letter that FASB's tightening of the use of so-called "qualifying special purpose entities" should be adopted "cautiously" and in a way that would minimize "any chilling effect on our frozen credit markets."
The rule change requires banks and other companies to report to regulators the loans contained in the entities and to increase their capital reserves in proportion as a cushion against potential losses. It could result in about $900 billion in assets being brought onto the balance sheets of the 19 largest U.S. banks, according to federal regulators, and some companies could be forced to raise additional capital.
FASB's vulnerability is seen as stemming partly from its hybrid status as an advocate for the accounting industry and its watchdog.
Source: AP News