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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

For AS-29,can legislation ever be 'virtually certain to be enacted'?

Suppose a new law/regulation is proposed which adversely impacts an industry/stock. If listed, the stock markets give instant feedback by driving the stock down atleast in the short term. But the financials rarely reflect this possible impact until the law is formally passed. Does this mean investors are conservative, or that accountants are aggressive? The truth is neither-it is just that markets can assign their own subjective estimate of the impact of the bill, while accountants are bound by accounting standards like AS-29, which I proceed to dissect below. 

Under AS-29 on measuring provisions, it mandates that the effect of possible new legislation should be considered while measuring a liability, when sufficient objective evidence exists that the legislation is virtually certain to be enacted. However, recognizing the inherent uncertainty in the whole process, the standard itself admits that in many cases, sufficient evidence will not exist until the new legislation is notified. Even while perusing through infrastructure companies annual reports/public filings(an industry with multiple laws relating to land reform/coal pricing/gas allocations etc), I did not notice any such provision anticipating pending laws, with companies instead preferring to recognize it as a liability. The reason for this is
  1. Proposals/news leaks often remain 'in the air' without concrete action. Sometimes, I feel that bureaucrats merely leak proposals to get a riskless preview of public reaction, and then modify the final proposals to please their political masters.
  2. Long time to pass any legislation especially sensitive ones. Opposition holding up the House for trivial issues, does not make things easier. 
  3. Executive has powers to notify the effective date of the law, and as examples of the Competition Act 2002/Benami Property Act etc would show, many 'hot potatoes' may make it through Parliament and the President's sanction, but not beyond that
  4. Devil in the details-delegated legislation-many laws especially economic/securities laws rely heavily on delegated legislation, which do at times, vary from the popular meaning/understanding.
Therefore, even well minded companies would find it difficult to find any objective evidence for what the draft bill may materialize to at the end of the whole process. For that reason, even conservative accountants may decide to let this slide and instead face the final law when it comes. And so because of the above uncertainties, one would be hardpressed to find a law which is 'virtually certain to be enacted' in its present form, especially in this coalition era.

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