The hottest topic in accounting this month is surely fair-value accounting, and whether all those toxic assets written down in the last few quarters might be shined up. But the bigger picture in accounting is the SEC's plan for the eventual retirement of GAAP accounting in favor of International Financial Reporting Standards, a long-term plan that will take institutions years to sort out, and at larger banks necessitate changes to hundreds of systems.
"Over 50 percent of the total effort (for conversion to IFRS), measured in time and cost, is related to IT," says Brad Fisher, partner in KPMG's IT advisory practice, and the firm's national leader for IFRS and IT. "This is not just necessarily about the ledger, it's about the supporting systems...Maybe you figure out the accounting in six-to-eight months, but you don't change 300 systems overnight."
In its most recent roadmap, the SEC laid out a timeline that would let some of the largest filers make the conversion as early as 2009, with mandatory conversion for large filers by 2014 and medium-sized corporations by 2015. This seems far off, but when the transition is made filers must have two years of similarly calculated comparative data.
And though the rules affect all major public companies, financial institutions may find the transition particularly taxing because of the number of legacy applications used in house. Most large institutions are in the early stages of assessing how IFRS will impact the firm from an accounting perspective, and perhaps putting together a project management office to coordinate the work. The biggest challenge to getting this done may be resolving the "dynamic tension" between senior IT executives who want to wait and see how the competition moves on the standard, and the IT team that needs adequate time to complete the work, says Sally Neal, senior managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Because the market is moving, and you only get one bite at the apple, you want to wait as long as possible," Neal says. "But the IT folks are saying, 'Stop it! You cannot tell us at the last minute that we have to turn the switch, otherwise there will be chaos.'"