"A once-obscure accounting rule that infuriated banks, who blamed it for worsening the financial crisis, was changed Thursday to give banks more discretion in reporting the value of mortgage securities.
The change seems likely to allow banks to report higher profits by assuming that the securities are worth more than anyone is now willing to pay for them. But critics objected that the change could further damage the credibility of financial institutions by enabling them to avoid recognizing losses from bad loans they have made.
Critics also said that since the rules were changed under heavy political pressure, the move compromised the independence of the organization that did it, the Financial Accounting Standards Board.
During the financial crisis, the market prices of many securities, particularly those backed by subprime home mortgages, have plunged to fractions of their original prices. That has forced banks to report hundreds of billions of dollars in losses over the last year, because some of those securities must be reported at market value each three months, with the bank showing a profit or loss based on the change.
Bankers bitterly complained that the current market prices were the result of distressed sales and that they should be allowed to ignore those prices and value the securities instead at their value in a normal market. At first FASB, pronounced FAS-bee, resisted making changes, but that changed within a few days of a Congressional hearing at which legislators from both parties demanded the board act.
"There is a perception that we are yielding to political pressure," one board member, Lawrence W. Smith, said as he voted for the changes.
"We are an independent standard setter, and it is important that we maintain our independence," Mr. Smith added. "At the same time, how can we ignore what is going on around us?""
"Up till now, a frequent source of level 2 information were prices achieved by competitors' asset sales to help determine the fair-market value of similar securities they hold on their own books. Banks are now allowed to ignore prices achieved in competitors' asset sales when these transactions that aren’t "orderly". This includes transactions in which the seller is near bankruptcy or needed to sell the asset to comply with regulatory requirements. This is vague and broad enough to drive a coach and horses through fair-value accounting for most imperfectly liquid assets."