GAAP and IFRS Convergence Pros and Cons Research Paper

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In 2016, the chief accountant of the SEC, James Schnurr, announced that he would not recommend that the SEC should mandate, or even offer the choice, for US companies to use International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). This announcement was believed to be the "death knell" for the convergence between GAAP and IFRS, a project that had already stretched more than a decade with only moderate success (Katz, 2015).

The Merits of Convergence

When the convergence project was originally proposed, there were several benefits cited that made the case for regulators to pursue the project. The biggest argument was that capital markets are becoming increasingly global, therefore it was valuable to converge all major accounting standards. If every nation in every country used the same accounting standards, that would reduce the transaction costs associated with the flow of capital. In theory, this would spark an increase in cross-border investment, and that in turn would provide greater opportunity for all companies, by reducing the friction associated with translating and understanding financial statements produced under different standards. While there were over 100 nations using IFRS, the US, Canada, and a few other major industrial nations still used their own set of accounting standards. The US decided that convergence with IFRS would be a positive for the US economy, and began the project.

Fundamental Differences

Yet, there were fundamental differences that made convergence more difficult than was perhaps originally anticipated. Fundamentally, the two systems are different in their cultural foundations. Ding, Jeanjean & Stolowy (2005) note that GAAP is a set of principles, while IFRS is a set of standards. An example would be a situation where in one there was a prescribed rule for handling, but in the other there was merely guidance, the latter being much more open-ended. Cultural differences are theorized to account for some of the differences, but each instance where there was such a difference presented challenges for accountants, and for anybody else seeking to interpret the financial statements.

What this means is that GAAP have developed in line with US cultural norms, and have become ingrained in the accounting culture and norms in the profession. The IFRS would represent not just a shift in guidance, but a shift in the norms and expectations for accountants and investors alike.

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That is not to say that the two systems are fully different – indeed, there is considerable overlap at the fundamental level in terms of embracing conservatism, matching, materiality, historical cost and consistency (Ampofo & Sellani, 2005).

As a result, one of the issues that was central to the debate about the merits of convergence was that of weighing the costs and benefits. The costs were generally understood as confusion in the markets and in the accounting professional whenever a rule changed, and certainly when fundamental beliefs changed. The entire point of convergence was that it would make it easier for everybody the world over to understand financial statements, and reduce friction, yet the convergence process clearly was causing confusion, and going to cause confusion.

One Country, Two Systems

One of the underlying issues that spurred the move to convergence was the fact that foreign companies that wanted to list on US exchanges had to publish financial statements that conformed to US GAAP. The need to create statements that conformed to home country standards, and then other statements that conformed to US GAAP was clearly a transaction cost, and it was believed that this cost was resulting in competitive advantage for exchanges that conformed to IFRS. The US could attract more foreign listings, the theory went, if it converged with IFRS. Companies would appreciate having to only produce a single set of statements, and investors would not be confused when a company's statements were different depending on which report the investor happened to be reading. Reducing the friction associated with cross-listing was clearly going to be a benefit (US Fed News Service, 2007).

In 2007, the move was made to address this by allowing foreign companies to list without reconciling their financial statements (US Fed New Agency, 2007). Thus did not solve the issue of investors having to understand multiple different accounting systems, but it did reduce some of the friction that was preventing companies from cross-listing. It is understood that most investing is done at the institutional level, and institutions can if they so desire….....

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Ampofo, A. & Sellani, J. (2005). Examining the differences between United States GAAP and IAS: Implications for the harmonization of accounting standards. Accounting Forum. Vol. 29 (2005) 219-231.

Ding, Y., Jeanjean, T. & Stolowy, H. (2005). Why do national GAAP differ from IFRS? The role of culture. The International Journal of Accounting. Vol. 40 (2005) 325-350.

Katz, D. (2015). SEC's Chief Accountant signals end to convergence efforts. Retrieved October 13, 2017 from

Nobes, C. (2009). Observations on measuring the differences between domestic accounting standards and IAS. Journal of Accounting Public Policy. Vol. 28 (2009). 148-153.

Tarca, A. (2004). International convergence of accounting practices: Choosing between IAS and US GAAP. Journal of International Financial Management and Accounting. Vol. 15 (1) 61-91.

US Fed News Service (2007). ASU research addresses upcoming SEC decision on earnings reconciliation from IAP to US GAAP. US State News. In possession of the author.

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