Since IAS 37 is published, companies obeying by international standards can solve the difficulty of how to recognize and measure provision, contingent liability and contingent asset. It provides an explicit direction for companies to disclose incurred transactions associated with liabilities. However, “probable” or “possible” such words are involved many times in this standard which can allow options and creative accounting for companies on whether to recognize it as a provision on the balance sheet or a contingent liability under the notes. This will further mislead investors’ decisions. Thus in this essay, we will re-evaluate it and give an in-depth understanding of it.
This report will first give some background of IAS37, and what the major requirements of this standard are and why those requirements are important. Furthermore, the report will critically evaluate the IAS37 from aspects of 1) options allowed; 2) applicability of this standard internationally; 3) opportunities for creative accounting; 4) the weaknesses of this standard; 5) how this standard can be improved.
2. Background of IAS 37
The International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC) issued IAS37 Provisions, Contingent Liabilities and Contingent Assets in September 1998. It replaced parts of IAS10 Contingencies (IAS37 BV2008) and became operative for annual financial statements covering periods beginning on or after 1 July 1999 (IAS37, BV2008).
Before the announcement of IAS37, different countries use various ways to verify their provisions, which bring the problem of inconsistency. Some enterprises confirm their provisions, depending on whether to undertake current obligation or not. While some other enterprises are according to managers’ willingness of proceeding future payments to confirm their preparations. Therefore, the results are:
Different types of business enterprises have different classification of provisions, so it creates inconsistency. This jeopardizes comparability of different enterprise’s financial statements.
It provides the opportunity for certain enterprises to manipulate their profits. For example, the cost should be recognized in the period but may be moved to other period to confirm; the cost should be confirmed in future but may be moved to the current period. Therefore, to achieve the balance of profits in each period is one of purposes of this regulation.
Some enterprises include some liabilities that do not meet the conditions of the requirements into their balance sheet. This apparently damages the current financial situation of the company.
‘The objective of this standard is to ensure that appropriate recognition criteria and measurement bases are applied to provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets and that sufficient information is disclosed in the notes to enable users to understand their nature, timing and amount ‘(International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), 2009). The key principle of IAS37 is that a provision should be recognized only when a liability exists. Planned future expenditures are not recognized as provisions or contingencies, even if the board of directors has authorized them.
3. IAS 37 Major requirements
An entity should recognize a provision as a liability based on the following three criteria met simultaneously:
(a) there is a present obligation or more likely than not that a present obligation exists at the end of the balance sheet date as a result of an obligating event;
(b) it is probable (i.e. more likely than not; i.e. 50%–95%) that an outflow of the economic benefit of the entity will exist;
(c) the amount of the outflow can be estimated reliably (IAS37 BV2008).
If the first criterion is met but it is possible (i.e.5%-50%) NOT probable that an outflow of economic benefit of the entity exists and the amount of the outflow cannot be measured reliably OR if possible obligation exists and the outflow of the economic benefit of the entity is not remote (i.e. 0%-5%), then contingent liability will arise.
In respect of contingent liability an entity should disclose it instead of recognizing unless the possibility of the outflow of the economic benefit of the entity is remote (IAS37 BV2008).
As regards a contingent asset, it should be just disclosed as well as contingent liability, unless the amount of the inflow of the contingent asset is virtually certain (i.e.95%-100%). When the inflow of the contingent asset is virtually certain, then it is appropriate to be recognized as an asset on the balance sheet (IAS37 BV2008).
When recognizing a provision, the amount of the outflow of the economic benefit of the entity should be based on the best estimate, i.e. this amount should be the same as the entity needs to pay to settle the obligation in due course (IAS37 BV2008).
When measuring a provision, things such as, risks and uncertainties, discounted provisions (if time value of money is material), changes in the law or other cases which can affect provisions, should be taken into account but do not take into account gains from the expected disposal of assets (IAS37 BV2008).
When reimbursement happens, an entity recognizes it if it is virtually certain and the amount recognized should not be more than the amount of the provision. The reimbursement should be recognized as a separate asset in the balance sheet. If the reimbursement and the expense relating to a provision are sustained in the same reporting period, then the expenses disclosed in the comprehensive P & L can be netted off by the amount recognized as a reimbursement (IAS37 BV2008).
The provision should be reviewed annually and adjusted according to latest best estimates. Changes in the provision can only be used for its original intention (IAS37 BV2008).
Provisions-three specific applications mentioned by this standard, namely: future operating losses, onerous contracts, restructurings. With regard to future operating losses no recognition should be made as a provision. In terms of onerous contracts, the unavoidable cost in excess of the benefit which can be received by the entity should be recognized as a provision. In related to restructurings, restructuring costs should be recognized when the criteria for provisions are met (IAS37 BV2008).
4. The importance of IAS37 requirements
According to Deloitte, IAS37 aims to ensure that recognition of provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets are made by using the best methods and measurements, to ensure that users of financial statements receive adequate and appropriate information for investment decision-making processes. In addition, IAS37 aims to ensure that it only deals with the real obligation in the financial statements and future expenditure, even if excluded from recognition by the responsible board.
The importance of taking the criteria into account, when the entity recognises the provision, is to prevent any unnecessary provision from being recognised in order to enhance the entity’s value in subsequent periods in unsubstantiated ways, leading to provision of unreliable information to financial statement users (ACCA, 2009). The importance of the liability and asset disclosure requirements could be viewed as returning to the Conservatism Principle in accounting which advises on ignoring profits not yet achieved, taking all expected losses into account and not registering potential gains until they occur. In other words this requirement prevents an entity from providing unrealised profits and subsequent information that might mislead users.
IAS37 provides guidelines regarding best estimates of provisions associated with its objectives, aiming to provide an appropriate way of measurement in order to represent sufficient and appropriate information. The standard requires the entity to take into account estimating process risks, uncertainties and other elements in order to achieve the best estimate for the provision. Following this requirement can prevent unrealistic values being reported in the entity’s financial statement. The requirements for solving the problem of reimbursement and illustrating the three specific applications are equally comprehensive, so that accountants know how to resolve them. Otherwise, it is likely that each entity might adopt its own method of troubleshooting which differs from others when facing such cases in reality, resulting in a lack of comparability among entities. In these instances investors may be misled when making investment decisions. In summary the importance of IAS37 is that it is intended to reduce the possibility of deliberate misstatement of an entity’s provisions, contingent assets and liabilities.
5. Critical Evaluation of IAS 37
5.1 Options allowed
In the measurement of IAS 37, there are several ways to measure provisions in order to make best estimate. Owing to these different ways, companies could control the amount of their provisions. All the information about provisions, such as amount and timing, are realized and disclosed by the companies. So a company could make the number of provision larger on the balance sheet when it is making a profit during the period. In addition, a company could calculate the number of provision smaller to make sure their balance sheets still look good when it is losing money during the year. This is an option that companies can change a number from their balance sheets showing different operating conditions and improve financial performance. In this way, decisions of investors could be misled, because investors of a company will not be possible to discover a present obligation or the estimation of the amount of the payment, companies could use this potential option to hide their real operating condition and make creditors and shareholder believe the companies are performing well.
In the second place, contingent liabilities are disclosed in the financial statement, especially in the notes, while provisions are disclosed in balance sheet as provisions are recognized as liabilities. It is absolutely sure that balance sheet will be paid more attention by reports’ users than notes. In order to make balance sheet attractive, the company will prefer to disclose adverse cases as contingent liabilities in the note on which the information appears less transparent. This action may affect investors’ decisions. And this kind of action may not be discerned because in general, both provisions and contingent liabilities are uncertain in timing or amount. This is another option under IAS 37 that companies could use to produce an advantageous financial report for them.
5.2 Applicability of IAS37 Internationally
Companies from more than 100 countries have been required or permitted to use IFRS since 2001. Meanwhile, remaining countries, such as Japan, have established timelines for harmonization with IFRS. (IASB, 2010)However, IAS 37 may face some difficulties when being applied world widely.
Owing to the different cultural attitudes, companies may not voluntarily disclose information about contingent liabilities and contingent assets in notes of their financial reports in some countries whose residents are secretive, such as Switzerland and Japan. On the contrary, Companies from transparent countries will disclose more detail information about their operation.
Additionally, some countries have more requirements about provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets than IAS 37 does. Because their accounting profession, as well as accounting standards, is well developed. For example, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of America has special requirements about companies who use IAS37 instead of GAAP. First, more information about recognized provisions need to be disclosed with further details about the nature, types and amounts being reported. Additionally, “other provisions” should be labelled and explained. Second, provisions recorded for estimated product returns, when recognizing revenues, are required to be given in more detail regarding the amount and location, and whether they are properly disclosed. SEC also considers the exact amount of this kind of provision that should be included; the amount when the financial period began and ended, followed by the amount made and used during the period. Third, it is strongly recommended that all information about estimated provisions and liabilities should be disclosed clearly. Fines and losses owing to currency allocation and pricing about forward sales, disclosure about these provisions and contingent liabilities is necessary (Deloitte, 2009b). In these countries where the accounting profession is fully developed, companies maybe prefer to use their own accounting standards. The application of IAS 37 could be easier in counties where accounting profession is less developed, such as Russia and Japan.
5.3 Opportunities for creative accounting
The essential rule of accounting is to be true; however creative accounting can occur and may be caused by human error, lack of professional ethics, squalid motives and so on. Simply put, the aim of creative accounting is to artificially state profits. Methods of creative accounting can be considered in four aspects:
1. Options give companies opportunities to make creative accounting. Provisions should be reflected in balance sheet but contingent liabilities only be disclosed in the notes. People focus more on balance sheet than the notes. Therefore, accounts may prefer to disclose some contingent liabilities rather than recognise the provisions.
2. Many accounting items need estimation and anticipation. Especially in IAS37, the items are full of uncertainty and arbitrariness. Although IAS37 makes rules for measurement, overrating or underrating still happens. As we mentioned before, the options allowed companies to control the amount of provisions. For instance, when a company wants to calculate the prospective pension liability, they will employ an actuary who should be familiar with the inside background and control the valuation on the basis of the financial performance.
3. A common method of creative accounting is artificial transactions which can be reflected in the balance sheet. This case needs assistance from other entities, for example, supposing entity A pretends to claim indemnity from entity B, so they can form contingent assets and recognise them as assets.
4. Creative accounting also plays tricks on real transactions, for example, suppose an entity has a contingent liability of¿¡50,000, the accountant may disclose this item in the next year to guarantee the financial situation in that year (Amat et al. 1999).
5.4 Weaknesses of IAS37
There are no prevalent problems existing in IAS37, however, it still has limitations which were discussed at the April 2009 IASB meeting.
1 .Inconsistency with other standards, especially the probability of recognition criteria; Liabilities are recognized only if it is probable that there is an outflow of economic benefits according to IAS37 (IAS37 BV2008, p.5) .Contrarily, other standards, such as IFRS 3 Business Combinations, have no requirement to use probability recognition criteria for contingent liabilities when an entity is in a business combination (Deloitte, 2009d). This inconsistency is potentially confusing.
2. The unclarity on explain identification of liabilities. The term ‘contingent liability’ is used to describe varies things. Specifically, it is puzzling to use one term to represent both possible obligations and unrecognised present obligations in the practical examples (Broad, 2006, p.14). Since the existence of the present obligation is the fundamental feature of a liability, it is misleading to describe a possible obligation as liability even with a adjective ‘contingent’ .And it is contradictory to use contingent liability to represent a present obligation. However removing it from the standard may hide some potentially significant risks, such as litigation, illegal acts, and environmental laws. These items do not satisfy the definition of liabilities because they are uncertain on the balance sheet date but they are useful for decision making.
3. IAS37 is ambiguous when measuring a single obligation. It is universally interpreted that the most likely outcome may be the best estimate of the liability when measuring a single obligation, (IAS37 BV2008, p. 17).This is contrary to the current settlement notion which states that expected value should be the base when entities measure all liabilities, which may mislead. Basically, the estimation technique of expected value has more merits since it obtains information about the range of possible cash flows and reflects new information about a liability as that information becomes available (Broad, 2006, p.19).
4 .The term ‘provisions’ is useless and there is an existing risk if eliminated. At present, the standard defines a provision as ‘a liability of uncertain timing or amount’ (IAS37 VB2008, p.10) therefore it is another form of liability. However, the difference between a provision, other liabilities and the new analysis of contingent liabilities is vague. The standard does not offer adequate explanation on how to distinguish them, for example, the uncertainty about timing or amount relates to cash flows .So it is difficult to recognize a liability for a product warranty. In other words, there is a choice between a provision and a contingent liability.
In order to improve the standard IAS37, several suggestions can be made:
1. Eliminate the probability of recognition criteria.
2. Eliminate the label ‘contingent liability’, and update the guidance in order to help entities to identify liabilities. Attention should be paid to potential liabilities in various scenarios in which a transaction embodies the nature of a liability. The IASB panel should publicise and add new applications to the IAS liability standards to help entities apply it to special cases.
3. Clarify that entities should establish basic measurements of all liabilities based on expected value, not on most likely outcome
4. Eliminate the terminology ‘provision’ and replace it with another phrase such as ‘non-financial liability’ which is important to make a clear distinction between liabilities.
5, A clear disclosure need to be established
ISA37 improves accounting standards as there were no specific regulations or provisions previously (Houillon, 1999). Therefore, the key principle for ISA 37 is the recognition of provisions. It requires that a provision should be recognized when the following conditions are met simultaneously: there is a present obligation or a present obligation exists at the end of the balance sheet date as a result of an obligating event, there is a probable outflow of the economic benefit and the outflow can be estimated reliably. Within these stipulations, IAS37 ensures recognition is made using appropriate measurements and provides valuable information for users of financial statements. Most countries in the world now apply IAS 37 but it may still face some difficulties when being applied globally. IAS37 gives companies options to choose whether recognise provisions or disclose contingent liabilities. Furthermore, some items in IAS37 need estimation and anticipation and provide opportunities for creative accounting, for these reasons, IAS37 is not perfect. The inconsistency with other standards and vapoury explanations of liabilities and constructive obligations provide the basis for some suggestions to improve ISA37. The probability of recognition criteria may be eliminated. Meanwhile, we probably need to pay some attention to potential liabilities and update the guidance in order to help entities to identify liabilities.