Uncertainty plagues hunt for IASB governance chief

WHY is the global accounting standard setter no closer to appointing a governance chief one year after the unexpected death of trustee chairman Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa?

Traditionally occupied by political heavyweights, the top trustee role oversees governance and ensures the International Accounting Standards Board is fulfilling its mandate.

Almost a year on, this important vacancy is as conspicuous as a missing tooth, with acting co-chairmen Tsuguoki Fujinuma and Robert Glauber bridging the gap.

The Hoogervorst effect

Padoa-Schioppa appointed Hans Hoogervorst as chairman of the IASB before his untimely death.

The IASB chairman is responsible for standard setting, while the trustee chairman is charged with governance oversight and political caretaking.

When Hoogervorst was appointed, critics questioned why a politician – he is Dutch minister of finance with no standard-setting experience – took the top spot, saying a technocrat would be a better fit.

The IASB’s constitution states board members must have “demonstrated technical competence … regardless of whether they are from the accounting profession, preparers, users or academics”.

Hoogervorst does not fit any of these categories and boasts little technical experience of standard setting, although he has sat on the board of several high-level financial bodies.

Could it be that Hoogervorst as IASB chairman is putting off potential trustee applicants, who wonder what role they would play alongside such a high-profile political figure?

An IASB spokesman denied the suggestion, calling Hoogervorst a “very effective board chairman” who is “always getting stuck in on both technical and strategic issues”.

Hoogervorst’s lofty public profile and political pedigree might not be the only potential factor putting off would-be trustee chairmen.

Time is money

The position is de-facto accountable to the monitoring board since its creation in 2009. Made up of representatives from public authorities around the world, the monitoring board oversees the whole organisation. The trustee chairman links the IASB to this top-level oversight, so hiring a strong political figure is crucial.

However, this new layer of governance means one of the trustee chairman role’s earlier attractions – being head honcho in a supra-national organisation – no longer applies.

On top of this, the level of commitment expected has risen significantly. Upon his return to the trustee chairman role in 2010, Padoa-Schioppa said the position swallowed up a far greater proportion of his time than before.

His second stab at chairmanship was accompanied £75,000 pay hike, bringing the top trustee salary to £200,000. This reflects the growing burden of the post.

As adoption of the global standards rises, the trustee chairman will naturally see his or her responsibilities expand. A spokesman said the role is expected to take up 25-50% of the holder’s time, and new recruits will almost certainly be looking at the top end of this bracket.

Nicolas Véron, star scholar at Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel, said these factors combine to seriously diminish the post’s appeal.

Finance fears

Chief among the trustees’ responsibilities is securing finances for the IASB. The standard setter has run at a loss in recent years, with dwindling contributions from the US chomping a hole in its wallet.

The vast majority of US companies still use US-GAAP and pay contributions to national standard setter the FASB. Amid uncertainty over whether global standards will be adopted State-side and ongoing economic turmoil, US businesses have curtailed their IASB donations.

Véron’s research shows that as a result, Big Four contributions have risen as a proportion of the budget.

The sum donated by the Big Four and mid-tier peers is fixed, but detractors nonetheless question whether firms’ contributions diminish the IASB’s independence.

In this sensitive environment, the new trustee chair will be expected to winkle further funds from cash-strapped jurisdictions and US stakeholders stubbornly resistant to paying levies for global standards they aren’t even sure they want.

Indefinite delay

A year-long timetable for the chairman search – protracted by anyone’s standards – has nonetheless proven too short for trustees, who were supposed to submit their preferred candidate for approval by the monitoring board in Q4 2011.

The trustees have yet to nominate their favourite contender and had little to say on the issue at last month’s meeting in Paris, which would have been a natural moment to comment on the search.

This indicates that, almost a year after losing Padoa-Schioppa, standard setters are still struggling to find someone to fill his shoes.

The deadlock is all the more damaging as it is dragging on through the most crucial period in the IASB’s history, as the US deliberates over adoption of the global standards and would-be users anxiously await its decision.

Although the IASB was careful not to impose a strict deadline on finding its new star, the implication was that the search would be over by end of the year. That is not looking likely now.

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