Regulators and bankers are worried that a little- publicized plan from the Financial Accounting Standards Board could drastically change the income statements of financial institutions, making even healthy performers look anemic to investors.
The FASB proposal is "a sleeper," said Timothy Stier, assistant chief accountant at the Office of Thrift Supervision. Industry officials have focused on the board's derivatives proposals, he said, but have paid little attention to this issue, which could have a broader impact.
Wall Street analysts said the proposal will not affect their assessments of banks.
"The notion that changes in accounting rules suddenly disclose new information they (analysts) weren't thinking about is sheer nonsense," said Ethan Heisler, a bank analyst with Salomon Bros. Inc.
The proposed rule would add an element - comprehensive income - to income statements. The category would be reported below net income as comprehensive income and comprehensive income per share.
The aim is to show shareholders the impact a company's investments have on its income. Comprehensive income would reflect gains or losses from changes in foreign exchange rates, pension liabilities, or the changing market value of "available for sale" securities. These are securities that may be sold in the future but not right away.
A good chunk of the securities banks and thrifts hold are in this "available for sale" category, Mr. Stier said, and their value can fluctuate substantially.
Under the board plan, an institution would compute comprehensive income by taking net income and adjusting it for unrealized gains or losses from these securities. The concern is that reporting comprehensive income could distort investors' perceptions, said Marti Sworobuk, accounting representative for the thrift trade group America's Community Bankers. "It's not a true reflection of operating performance," she said.
Donna Fisher, director of tax and accounting issues for the American Bankers Association, said comprehensive income's earnings per share "will look very different" from net income numbers and "will take more explaining and educating" of shareholders.
The changes, proposed June 20, would not affect how banks are rated by regulators. When regulators assess a bank's capital for safety and soundness evaluations, they ignore the impact of these unrealized gains or losses, Mr. Stier said.
But it may change the way investors view financial institutions, Mr. Stier said, because it would make these gains or losses much more visible.
To demonstrate what he meant, he gave two examples. The first, a publicly owned thrift, reported net income of $54.9 million, or 76 cents per share. But the value of its portfolio of "available for sale" securities fell by more than $53 million. That brought its total comprehensive income to $958,000 or 1 cent a share.
In Mr. Stier's second example, a bank holding company held securities that increased in value by about $126 million. Its net income was $105 million, or $2.65 per share. But its total comprehensive income was $231.4 million, or $5.82 a share.
Robert Storch, chief of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s accounting section, was less concerned about the proposal's impact. He said the rule doesn't ask for information that isn't already available to investors and analysts. The proposal, he said, simply "moves where the information would appear on the financial statement."
Hal Schroeder, a research analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., also downplayed the rule's impact. "It's making a mountain out of a molehill," he said. "The market will adapt to it," he said, adding that analysts will continue to focus on how well banks manage their core businesses.
"We already know what they're doing in their securities portfolios," he said. "The accounting may change, but the economics of the bank have not changed."
Deadline for comments on the proposed rule is Oct. 11. The board will hold public hearings on the proposal on Nov. 15, 18, and 19 at its headquarters in Norwalk, Conn. If approved, the rule would take effect in 1997.