Monday, December 13, 2010

Accounting science fiction

Here's a little piece of accounting science fiction I prepared as part of a recent XBRL presentation:

Friday, 2 December 2050 - EOB and weekend at last! Qifan Strittmatter relaxes, leans back and signs off from work. She is 75, citizen of Switzerland and the Chinese Federation and has been living with her husband in the NW state of Switzerland for the last couple of years. She looks forward to an early retirement from her job as CFO of Novroche. 
She spent the past week mostly working on an important transaction which was communicated to the markets this morning. Novroche sells a large protein synthesis unit to a food conglomerate which had made an important discovery half a year ago. That discovery meant that the buyer could add more value with the unit than Novroche, hence the premium he was willing to pay over Novroche's valuations. 
That premium has now been booked into the constantly live Finance Feed for which Qifan is responsible together with her team of 11 around the globe. The share price barely moved, though, as the transaction was built into expectations soon after the discovery was published.
In deep thought, Qifan's glance falls on a glass case containing a wonderful 1581 edition of Paracelsus' Opus Chirurgicum on loan from the firm's Art Fund. Those were the times when she helped prepare similar tomes every quarter! Sadly, the bigger the reports, the less they were used. Nowadays, things are quite different for sure: With her small team, she signs off on the Finance Feed which reflects everything in real time to the markets and - duly modified - to regulatory authorities around the world. Users make their own choice of the time horizon appropriate for their analytical task. In the case of extraordinary events like today, she has to make sure that automatic adjustments to historical KPI time series which analysts love so dearly are executed correctly.
Her main job consists in adjusting her Finance Feed for the modifications necessary as the Global Investor Reporting Standards (GIRS) get updated. Even more importantly, she has to make sure that the feed's parametrisation (they used to call that Accounting Policy in the olden days) delivers a faithful representation of economic reality at all times. The best ways to achieve that goal is a constant topic of conversation at the GIRS Committee, the global body of experts moderating the setting of GIRS in an extensive, yet intense mass collaboration effort. We've truly come a long way since the edicts of London and Norwalk, by means of which a small group of experts were trying to define the world economy's operating system. Doing that, they had to rely on a process predicated on historical precedent and contingencies which was anything but independent of undue political influence.
Today, that's only of interest to economic historians, daily life in the profession looks very different. And tonight, she looks forward to the trip to Strasbourg and her husband's dinner invitation at the Crocodile, a historic institution in its own right!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Of prudence and pretence

As indicated earlier, my article has now been published in the December issue of IPE. Unfortunately, the article contains two editorial mistakes: Replace "parametric" with "patronal" in the 3rd paragraph, and CHF 1bn is EUR766 mio today, not EUR460 mio. There are a number of other interesting articles about Switzerland in the magazine.

Your comments are very welcome!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

XBRL Advisory Council (XAC)

I'm equally proud and humbled to read that my mandate at the XAC on behalf of CFA Institute has been renewed for a second (and last) term. To bring to bear the analyst / investor perspective on the (as yet barely existing) investor usage of XBRL is a tall order indeed, but joining forces with DVFA's Ralf Frank, there is a fighting chance to make sure that that angle's crucial importance remains recognised despite the low adoption for now.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Future of the Occupational Retirement Act

The book Zukunft BVG (The Future of the Swiss Occupational Retirement Act) has just been published. I have contributed an article about the Prudent Investor Standard and its alleged implementation in Switzerland. The article will also appear in an abridged, English version in the forthcoming December issue of IPE, to which we will link as soon as it becomes available. Comments are very welcome!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Hedge accounting does not account for longevity hedges

Tuesday's ARG meeting was extraordinarily interesting, for it held a good and a bad surprise: Meeting the incoming IASB Chairman Hans Hoogervorst was a pleasant surprise, while discovering that the hedge accounting project underway will actually discourage longevity hedging if the standard were to stand as it currently does. This is a consequence of the proposed architecture of pensions accounting. Hence there appears to be no easy way out.

However, this outcome is deeply unsatisfactory and should be addressed. While there are not very many cases to account for at present, it would be unfortunate indeed if effective management techniques for the second most important risk facing pension funds were developed, only to be thwarted by accounting artefacts. Watch this space!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

More XBRL in Switzerland

On 10 November, the second instalment of the XBRL CH Swiss Day (Agenda in German here) will bring an afternoon full of XBRL goodness in and to Switzerland. We will have a keynote on XBRL in the future of business reporting, two parallel tracks focused on Switzerland and IFRS respectively and finally, a closing panel which I'm looking forward to because of its composition and direction ("possibilities and impediments"). I'm particularly keen on the event because we will be releasing the first public draft of the Swiss OR Taxonomy into the wild for public comment. Please touch base if you're interested to contribute your comments.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Power of Pull

The History of Information, by David Siegel from dsiegel on Vimeo.

Pull by David Siegel presents a fascinating introduction into the concept of semantic web, its technologies and options. He looks at a number of facets, with XBRL being prominent because of its advanced stage of implementation. Others are not so convincing: the fairtax chapter proposes no less than a tax revolution without even arguing why that tax system is superior to VAT - but this digression risks to escalate.

The book frequently refers to its own website, which shows interesting developments, but is painfully slow to build when accessed in a browser. Fortunately that problem goes away if you subscribe to its feed. Overall, Pull is a quick and easy to read introduction for non-technical people without much OWLing and RDFing. It's definitely worth your while if you're interested in the next evolutionary stage of the internet.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reporting for the 21st century

I'm looking forward to giving a presentation (in German) entitled IFRS & XBRL - business reporting for the 21st century at the IFRS Update on 3 December. The only thing left to be done is the preparation of the actual presentation ...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

XBRL in Switzerland

Schweizer Treuhänder has published the article about XBRL (German, French summary) which I've co-authored with Martin Welser of Deloitte in its August issue. As this is probably the first time that the term XBRL appears in the pages of this august publication, I am hopeful that it will raise the awareness of the profession in Switzerland.

P.S. After years of silence about XBRL in Schweizer Treuhänder, the current issue actually carries two items which conclude that XBRL plays an important part. The article Five years of IFRS accounts in the EU (German) concludes that XBRL is a key element to increase the comparability of corporate accounts under IFRS.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Seven faces of "The Peril"

What sounds like an Asian action flick is in fact an important research paper (server down, but here's the exec summary) by James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed which has caught the markets' attention last week. The attention is well deserved as the paper demonstrates how current monetary policy concepts and postures might lead the world's largest economy(US) to join its second largest (Japan, for now) in a steady state equilibrium of very low interest rate / inflation. This second intersection point of the Fisher relation with the non-linear Taylor rule is a most undesirable place to be in, of course, because monetary policy is entirely ineffective there, but Mr. Bullard shows convincingly how we might end up there all the same. His proposed way out is quantitative easing (QE II) rather than the current monetary stance.

This leaves the Fed with uncomfortable short term choices: either stick to the current extended period (of very low interest rates) language with its associated Japan scenario, or start Mr. Bernanke's helicopters once more. Neither will be much appreciated.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Save the dates!

I've been invited to moderate the closing panel at this year's Asset Management Forum on To beat or not to beat - The active vs passive investing debate on 1 September in Zürich. It would be great to see you at that event. You can register following the link above.

The next date to save is a little bit further out: 9 March 2011. This is the date of the Swiss Pensions Conference, the preparation of which I am heavily involved with. You can watch the progress of those preparations under that link.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More indices - insurance linked

This copy of Sigma has been sitting around for way too without being mentioned here: The role of indices in transferring insurance risks to the capital markets. It's such a comprehensive overview of insurance linked securities (ILS) that I wanted to do an in-depth review, but never got round to it. Given that this market segment links two very relevant marketplaces (capital markets and reinsurance), its growth from 4% of catastrophe reinsurance capacity 5 years ago to 12% of capacity now is substantive. However, Sigma does not answer the #1 question that concerns me as an investor: how do I know whether the premium I get for taking the risk in question is fair, assuming that the issuer will only approach the ILS market if he thinks that he can get a better deal there than in the conventional reinsurance market? How is the reinsurance market in any specific segment priced? There seems to be a significant amount of information asymmetry there.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Longevity indices

Here's a useful and interesting paper on Longevity Indices and Pension Fund Risk. The abstract sums it up nicely:

Pension fund longevity risk is becoming increasingly important. Longevity indices would allow the creation of liquid derivatives that could be used to hedge this risk. However, there are a number of criteria that such indices would need to fulfil to provide an optimal solution, as well as a number of forms that the derivatives could take. These features are discussed, together with the characteristics of some existing longevity indices.

Longevity indices look like a viable risk management instrument, but given their utility bounded by liquidity and granularity, they are anything but trivial to design. Add to the mix an extremely fragmented market like the Swiss with its many small IORPs and their high volatility risk. Longevity risk also comprises level risk, trend risk and catastrophe risk. Interestingly, catastrophe risk is only seen as a one-off surge in mortality rates: "similar one-off falls in mortality rates do not occur." Black swans, anyone?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Limiting the scope of Standards

Fernando Restoy, Chairman of CESR-FIN, has given a remarkably candid speech about convergence, governance and - most notably - the link between accounting and other regulation to the eponymous recent IFRS conference. It is certainly going too far to list him as a supporter of our recent hypothesis, but his closing reference to the "somewhat excessive scope of the standards" certainly points in the same direction, especially when read in conjunction with Sir David's idea of a regulatory income account, which is probably little else than a reconciliation item between RAAP and IFRS.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

EU Green Paper

The Commission has published its impatiently expected Green Paper towards adequate, sustainable and safe European pension systems today. The scope of the paper is very broad indeed, questioning the basics of the current EU pension legislation except - ostensibly - member states' responsibility for pensions. While initial reactions focus on incumbent battlefields such as solvency regimes for pension funds and retirement age, I would not be surprised at all if the intended discussion were soon to turn towards more comprehensive harmonisation, especially given the objective of adequate and sustainable pensions in the light of most member states' evident inability so far to reform their pensions systems sufficiently to rise to the double challenge of demographic shifts and inevitable fiscal austerity.

EFRP has started its own EU Pensions Debate website. It will be interesting to monitor the yield of the four month consultation period.

Monday, July 05, 2010

IORPs frozen

CEIOPS has just published its annual report on market developments. Given the uncertainty surrounding new legislative developments, it is unsurprising that the net new growth of cross-border IORPs within the EEA has ground to a virtual halt. As of 1 June, there were 78 active IORPs, compared to last year's 76. Interestingly, the gross growth of 7 has been almost entirely compensated by 5 withdrawals that were exclusively based in the UK, whereas the new IORPs are based in Austria, Belgium, Ireland and Liechtenstein (2 each).

Thursday, July 01, 2010


This nice illustration of the consolidation continuum that stretches from informational to comprehensively organisational is taken from the Aegon white paper on asset pooling. The paper is as good an overview of the issues involved as white papers go.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Time to revisit the G in GAAP?

Please find below the slides of the presentation I was invited to give today to the Swissholdings Expert Group Financial Reporting and Accounting. The Expert Group was interested in my perspective on standard setting and in how the Analyst Representatives Group to the IASB works.

It was a great opportunity to explain the mindset of users / investors to a group of highly competent preparers across industries. What struck me most was the concern voiced over lunch that what users are mostly interested in - which is performance reporting from a value perspective - is not what accountants / preparers feel comfortable giving. Their (idealised) concept of financial reporting is based on the general ledger and delivers a summary of past events in compliance with the regulatory framework. Obviously there is a major disconnect between that concept and the kind of forward looking, value based financial reporting that investors are looking for.

Perhaps it really is time to revisit the G in GAAP in the sense that Generally Accepted Accounting Principles designed to fulfil the needs of a number of stakeholder categories are simply becoming too unwieldy and too complex to manage and maintain. At the same time, technology is available today (XBRL) to give us multiple, tailored views of the same underlying economic reality to address the specific needs of the different stakeholder groups separately. What may be required then, however, is a set of interlocking SAAP - Specifically Accepted Accounting Principles which cater to the needs of their respective audiences, to wit: Regulatory AAP, Investor AAP, Environmental AAP, Tax AAP ...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Swiss Finance Institute podcast

Swiss Finance Institute has recently begun to provide video podcasts (iTunes link) of its public events. These are definitely worth following. A good example is Attilio Meucci's presentation about State of the art in asset allocation: Diversification management, which I attended in Zürich last week. In it, he discusses his new unified measure of diversification, which offers interesting quant properties. The paper that the presentation is based on is also available online, as are the slides of the presentation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nordic strategy evaluation

You should have a look at this extraordinarily thorough and methodic assessment of the allegedly active investment strategy of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund NBIM, which was commissioned from the Ministry of Finance in the wake of heavy losses during the crisis. The academic authors came to a number of noteworthy conclusions:

  • Their survey of current thinking about the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) suggests that EMH does not hold in practice, even though it is quite hard to consistently beat a market portfolio: "even modest levels of skill should lead to at least some part of the portfolio being actively managed".
  • The authors found that the fund's active strategy contributed a small, but statistically significant outperformance. However, they attributed this outperformance not as much to the active strategy per se, but rather to the exposure to a number of financial market risk factors (especially liquidity and volatility) as often used in hedge fund replication models. The lion's share of the fund's performance arises from passive exposure, which is why they consider the fund not to be an actively managed portfolio in first approximation.
  • Consequently, they recommend that effectively, a semi-active strategy be adopted which uses factor exposure as active bets rather than as an accidental byproduct of more conventional active strategies. 
Comparing NBIM's size, resources and sophistication with those of the overwhelming majority of players in the field should give pause for thought in applying those considerations to other cases.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

X marks the spot

In the March edition of CFA Institute's EMEA Newsletter Connexions, I have a tiny piece about CFA Institute's recent response (all responses) to CESR's call for evidence on the use of a standard reporting format. We still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The defenestration of Prague

Last week, the ECJ passed an interesting judgment in the case C-343/08 EU Commission vs Czech Republic. The Czech Republic argued that there wasn't any point in transposing a number of provisions of the directive as IORPs were not provided for in the Czech retirement system which only knows the first and the third pillar. The Court however did not share that existentialist line of argument and took the constructivist view that a second pillar may be introduced at any time, in which eventuality the rules required by the directive already need to be in place.

While the Czech position appeals to a layman's common sense rather better than the somewhat fundamentalist approach taken by the Court, one important aspect has escaped IPE's attention: The judgment includes a thinly veiled hint (paragraphs 63, 64) that the Court may find the Czech prohibition on IORP establishment in the country in breach with the Treaties' rules on free circulation. That in itself is a valuable signal.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It has barely begun

On Thursday, I attended a Goldman Sachs investment conference in Lucerne. Jim O'Neill, the firm's chief strategist, gave the keynote presentation containing an outlook for the world economy, which was surprisingly optimistic (this year's global growth rate is expected at 4.4% vs 3.9% consensus). To my question where deleveraging was in that picture, he answered that it wasn't because there is no reliable information about leverage available, and that we shouldn't trust anyone who claims to have it.

It appears to be more than a little cavalier to ignore a presumably major phenomenon simply because it is hard to measure. It is therefore very timely that MGI has just published a major report on debt and deleveraging. MGI looks at the buildup of debt at a per country and per sector level and distills four archetypal deleveraging scenarios from past episodes: Austerity, Inflation, Default and Growth. Unsurprisingly, they find that deleveraging has only just begun in a quite moderate way, as private sector debt reduction is compensated by increasing public sector debt.