Accounting rule makers are backing off a proposed change that had alarmed many company executives because it promised to make some corporate mergers more difficult.
The decision drew praise from the fast-growing technology industry, which had lobbied hard against the rule change, but it sparked criticism from some quarters that it would allow companies to continue putting out deceptive earnings reports.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board, a rule-making body in Norwalk, Conn., said yesterday it would indefinitely delay a proposed change in the way companies account on their balance sheets for the value of ongoing research and development at firms they acquire.
Using what critics describe as creative accounting, many companies in recent years have attached high values to the acquired R&D, then written the cost off all at once--a bit of accounting legerdemain that can make most of the cost of a corporate buyout disappear in a single quarter. Investors tend to ignore such one-time charges.
The alternative would be to write the value of the acquired R&D off over its useful life. Companies don't like that, because it drags down earnings for years. The effect of the one-shot write-offs is to boost companies' reported earnings--and therefore their stock prices--over the long term.
Many corporate executives, particularly at technology companies that like to gobble up smaller firms, have argued that these big write-offs are essential to their ability to grow and innovate. But critics have said they give a false picture of a company's financial position and artificially inflate stock prices.
By the end of the year, the accounting board had hoped to have enacted new rules that would have eliminated or severely restricted the one-shot charges. But Edmund L. Jenkins, chairman of the board, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the issue turned out to be "broader and more complex than we had originally hoped it would be."
He said the board may yet mount a sweeping study of all accounting rules related to research and development, though such a study could take years.
The indefinite delay heartened many corporate executives and people who make their living putting mergers and acquisitions together. "I'm still excited about it," Robert Willens, a managing director at Lehman Brothers Inc. who specializes in accounting issues, said late yesterday.
Despite the accounting board's explanation, some critics smelled a rat. They noted that the board had been subjected to intensive lobbying by corporate executives opposed to the change.
"They are to some extent ducking the issue," said Baruch Lev, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business who has studied the issue extensively. "This a very bad thing."
All sides agreed yesterday that a lot of heat was taken off the accounting board by a Securities and Exchange Commission crackdown on abusive write-offs. The SEC has been reviewing corporate buyouts closely in recent months. Before the SEC began looking at the issue, it was not unusual for a company to take 70 percent or 80 percent of the cost of an acquisition as a one-time charge. Lately, with the SEC looking over their shoulders, companies have been sticking closer to 40 percent.
That is without doubt more reasonable, Lev said, but at the same time he argued that such a rapid swing in accounting practice proves his point that the rules need work.
"This is not accounting," he said. "It's bargaining."