Cash Flow Accounting Isn’t So Terrible, Really

Last night on Larry Kudlow’s CNBC show, the guests debated how proposed changes to fair value accounting would impact the stock market. The full clip is below, but the main argument was whether using cash flow fair value accounting (most likely what any proposed changes out of FASB will look like) is really that much worse than mark-to-market accounting. I have written about this before and I really don’t understand the argument that somehow a cash flow based valuation of asset backed securities lacks transparency and allows bankers to value their assets at whatever number they want.

Gary Schilling, the bear on Kudlow’s panel (who is predicting 600 on the S&P) argues that fair value accounting is just a forecast and you can’t accurately forecast the cash flows from an asset backed security. This view baffles me. After all, non-packaged whole loans that banks hold are valued using cash flow projections. In fact, that is standard practice. If you have a loan that is being paid on time consistently, there is little reason to think you won’t be repaid in full, and therefore that loan is reserved for much less aggressively than a loan you have where the borrower is delinquent.

The idea that one can’t accurately forecast the cash flow from a loan (or an asset backed security) ignores reality. Every loan has an amortization schedule, so you know exactly how much principal and interest you are due to receive and when. Obviously, you have to build in some loss assumptions based on the economic environment, delinquency trends, credit history, etc, but it is far easier to predict cash flows from loans you hold than it is other assets like goodwill and other intangibles, or even equities.

The idea that someone else selling a loan makes every loan like it worth that exact amount ignores the fact that credit trends differ between banks, regions, etc. If you hold loans that are current on both principal and interest, there is no reason you should be forced to write down the value of that loan simply because a distressed seller, completely unrelated to you, is forced to sell their loans at a discount to get rid of them quickly.

Fortunately, the updated FASB guidelines should go a long way to solving this issue in the coming weeks. Banks lose money on loans all the time, and that will continue with or without mark-to-market accounting. There is no reason a financial services company should be forced to take an accounting loss on an asset if they are still being repaid on time and as expected.

Later this week I will illustrate why adjusting these accounting rules on financial services companies will do a lot to alleviate investor fears and bring some stability back into the stock market, which we have already begun to see in the last week or so.