- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A House panel wrung a pledge Thursday from the head of an accounting board to try to issue guidelines in three weeks that will ease rules that force banks to value assets at current prices.

The commitment by the chairman of the independent Financial Accounting Standards Board came amid a muscular display of congressional power at a hearing on the so-called mark-to-market accounting rules. The head of the House panel, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., had held out the threat of legislation to pressure the standard-setting board and the Securities and Exchange Commission to take steps that would give relief to battered banks.

FASB had planned to put out the new guidelines for the mark-to-market accounting rules in the April-June quarter. The rule has forced banks to take steep write-downs on some financial assets _ especially securities linked to mortgages _ even as the industry has been reeling from the housing market decline.

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As the financial crisis has ground on and banks large and small have foundered and failed, the banking industry has been pushing for the accounting relief.

FASB Chairman Robert Herz told the lawmakers on the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets that the board “could have the guidance in three weeks.”

In a torrent of bipartisan angst, members of the panel pleaded for emergency accounting relief they said would help small banks, taxpayers, bank depositors and homeowners suffering in the economic crisis. As banks have teetered and the government has injected hundreds of billions of dollars in public money into them, taxpayers too have been hurt by an inflexible accounting rule, they argued.

“We may help save the jobs of several million Americans and help keep the country out of a worse economic situation” than the current one, Kanjorski said.

Banks have been forced to write down the mortgage-backed securities, gutting their balance sheets even though the assets could eventually recover their value before the banks sell them.

Many of the committee members receive sizable campaign contributions from banks and other financial institutions.

The lawmakers addressed Herz, who appeared before the subcommittee with officials from the SEC and a Treasury Department bank regulatory agency.

“We have been dithering while the patient is sick,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. He has proposed legislation to create a new federal board to oversee how accounting principles are applied to the financial markets.

“Three weeks is too much,” Perlmutter told Herz. “We have to move on this thing. We can’t study it any more.”

Herz said the FASB “probably could” have the guidelines out within the panel’s three-week deadline. “I will take back your very clear message from today” to the FASB board, he said.

The SEC’S acting chief accountant, James Kroeker, told the panel his agency had earlier won a commitment from the FASB to act on the guideliness within weeks. The SEC “stands fully ready to assist” in putting the new guidelines into effect, he testified.

Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the senior Republican on the full committee, said “Given our current market conditions, the lack of urgency on the part of the SEC and FASB is disappointing and unacceptable. Relief is needed now and action must be taken immediately to help bring certainty to the markets.”

The threat of legislation was a reversal of stance for Kanjorski, who had previously said Congress shouldn’t intervene in establishing accounting rules such as the mark-to-market standard now at issue.

Kanjorski didn’t advocate suspending the rules _ though other members of the House panel did _ but said the standards for determining what assets are worth must be changed to provide greater flexibility.

Proponents of mark-to-market rules argue that suspending or scrapping them would weaken transparency in companies’ financial statements, hurting investors and the capital markets. Critics say the rules mandate onerous write-downs _ sapping investor confidence in banks _ that don’t reflect the true value of soured, mortgage-linked assets and the prices they may fetch in the future.

An SEC study issued in December recommended retaining the mark-to-market rule while suggesting improvements to current practices for valuing assets.

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