Applying VIE Consolidation Guidance to Private Companies
The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) recently issued a proposal that would exempt private companies from a provision in the guidance for the off-balance-sheet vehicles known as variable interest entities (VIEs). The FASB has long criticized VIEs, because some dishonest public companies have previously used them to mislead investors.
However, the use of VIEs among private companies is generally less controversial. Here’s the lowdown on a proposal that would allow them to skip the VIE consolidation guidance.
Public vs. private
The FASB’s proposal is a small part of a broader effort to simplify the accounting guidance in Topic 810, Consolidations. This topic addresses when a company should consolidate — or report on its balance sheet — holdings it has in other entities. After the 2002 Enron accounting scandal, the FASB revised its guidance to prevent other companies from hiding liabilities in off-balance-sheet vehicles. But accounting for VIEs is considered complicated, even for specialists in off-balance-sheet accounting.
Private companies have complained that the brother-sister entities they set up are for common tax and estate planning purposes — they’re generally not designed to mislead investors or mask debts. However, when in doubt about the guidance, many private companies err on the side of consolidation. This often frustrates their lenders, who would rather see individual balance sheets, rather than consolidated ones.
Assessment of power
The guidance in Topic 810 is based on an assessment of power: Whoever is in power is the parent entity and must report its holdings on its balance sheet. In certain private company transactions, such as those between friends or relatives, there are no formalized arrangements, the parent can change and there is little or no paperwork to back up decisions. These characteristics can make it difficult for private companies to assess who’s in power.
The FASB’s proposal would allow private companies to skip the consolidation guidance. But companies that opt out of consolidation would still have to provide detailed disclosures, conveying their involvement with and exposure to the affiliates.
In addition to exempting private companies from the VIE model, the proposal calls for changes to other areas of the guidance. For example, indirect interests held through related parties in common control arrangements would be considered on a proportional basis for determining whether fees paid are variable interests. Under the existing guidance, such indirect interests under common control are considered direct interests in their entirety.
Also, the proposal would call for changes to the so-called “related-parties tiebreaker test.” This test helps financial professionals decide when to consolidate the reporting of complicated business relationships. The test may be relevant for situations in which power is shared among related parties or when related parties, as a group, have a controlling financial interest in a VIE. Under the revised guidance, the party for which “substantially all” of the activities either involve it or are conducted on its behalf would have a controlling financial interest in the entity.
A split board
Three FASB members oppose the proposal, but for different reasons.
- Lawrence Smith is concerned about carving out exemptions for private companies from accounting standards because doing so creates two different sets of rules and results in apples-to-oranges comparisons when benchmarking the performance of private and public companies.
- Christine Botosan believes the existing private company VIE accounting is too complex and wants the FASB to look at the VIE model more broadly. With the FASB’s proposal, “we are chipping away at the VIE model in a manner that could lead to unintended consequences,” she told the board in a written statement.
- Marc Siegel disagrees with the changes to the related-parties tiebreaker test. In his opinion, if deciding to consolidate is such a difficult call that it comes down to a special test, the business likely structured its transactions to complicate decision-making. “I don’t mind if [any company] is forced into consolidation,” Siegel said.
On the other hand, FASB Vice Chairman James Kroeker said he “strongly” supports the proposed changes to the tiebreaker test. However, he recommends that the FASB ask the public if the test is an antiabuse measure and, if so, what specific abuses the test prevents.
Although Kroeker supports the proposal, he has raised concerns about the private company exemption. “I see increasing concerns about impediments to accessing public capital, and I think the more we create public-private differences, the more we drive that difference,” he said.
Many private companies welcome simplified guidance on VIEs. The FASB’s proposal was issued on June 22. The deadline for submitting comments is September 5, 2017.
FASB Approves Hedge Accounting Amendments
In June, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) unanimously agreed to change one of the most complex aspects of financial reporting: hedge accounting. The amendments are expected to make hedge accounting easier to apply and available for a broader range of risk management strategies.
Understanding hedge accounting
Businesses “hedge” their exposure to spikes in raw material prices, foreign exchange rates and interest rates by buying derivatives such as futures, options or swaps. Under Topic 815, Derivatives and Hedging, changes in the value of the derivatives must be recorded at fair value on the income statement. But if a company can prove that management uses derivatives as risk management tools, they can qualify for hedge accounting. Hedge accounting allows the changes in value to be excluded from earnings, avoiding volatility that can turn off investors and creditors.
Hedge accounting allows the deferral of gains and losses from reported earnings. So, there’s a high barrier to qualify for it. Some businesses have criticized the threshold as overly strict. Others told the FASB that they avoid trying to use hedge accounting because the rules are too complicated, and the potential for errors is too high. Hedge accounting problems are a significant reason companies have to restate their earnings.
The updated guidance is intended to make it easier for companies to record the benefits of risk management strategies in their financial statements. The amendments also better align the accounting requirements with existing risk management activities. The changes are welcome news for companies that use derivatives to manage their exposure to fluctuations in the price of raw materials or swings in interest rates.
The FASB expects to publish the update in August and have it go into effect for public companies starting after December 15, 2018. Private companies and other organizations will have another year to comply. Early adoption will be allowed.
If you have questions regarding the proposed simplified guidance, please contact Dan Ward, Principal, Audit Services, at 314.983.1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.