The method, which has allowed US and European banks to add more than $8bn in paper profits, faces increasing opposition from investors, analysts and credit rating agencies.
Under the rule, introduced in February 2007 after lobbying from banks, financial companies are allowed to use “mark to market” accounting on their own debt. As a result, if the price of their bonds and notes falls, banks can record a gain equal to the difference between the original value of the debt and its market price.
Analysts forecast that Merrill and Citi, which report second-quarter results next week, will offset part of their expected multibillion-dollar writedowns with these gains. The impact of the accounting rule could be muted by a brief rally in debt markets in April.
Critics, such as David Einhorn, the hedge fund manager who has been shorting Lehman shares, say the rule lets banks record accounting gains when sentiment towards the companies worsens.
Mark LaMonte, a senior vice-president at Moody’s, said the credit rating agency had advised investors to strip out these gains from their analyses. “We are not big fans of the fair-value option when it is applied to a company’s own debt because the results are very counterproductive. It creates very poor quality earnings.”
Corporate governance experts say investors face difficulties in finding these paper gains as banks disclose them in different ways: sometimes in footnotes, sometimes in press releases.
“Investors should not be required to go digging deep into the regulatory filings to find out these gains,” said Lynn Turner, former chief accountant at the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
The banks declined to comment but insiders said the accounting treatment works both ways and banks will suffer a paper loss if the value of their debt rises or credit spreads tighten. They note that gains from credit spread widening must be deducted from Tier 1 regulatory capital.
Goldman Sachs, in a regulatory filing this week, revealed unrealized losses of $375m before hedges in the three months to May, because of the April debt market rally.
Holly Barker, a project manager at the Financial Accounting Standards Board, said companies that elect to use fair value for their debt have have to quantify the reasons why its creditworthiness is declining.