How Should Banks Account for Loan Losses?
George J. Benston and Larry D. Wall
Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 4, 2005
The agencies that regulate banks are involved in an ongoing debate about the appropriate way for banks and other lenders to account for default risk on loans. Accounting authorities are concerned with whether the accounting method meets the needs of general-purpose users of financial statements, particularly investors. In contrast, bank supervisors are concerned about banks being inadequately capitalized and possibly failing.
To shed light on this debate, this article reviews the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) currently used, which are based on historic-cost values for assets and liabilities. It then analyzes economic-value, or fair-value, accounting, which is being discussed as a substitute.
The analysis suggests that the reported GAAP value is likely to understate the economic value of most banks' portfolios most of the time. The economic values of loans would be more valuable if they were reliable. However, the authors argue, the fair value of credit losses must be estimated by management and hence may be biased by managerial attempts to attain earnings and capital targets.
The authors conclude that using the lower of historic cost or economic value for valuing the credit risk of loans would provide the most relevant adequately reliable measure of loan value and would thus be the most appropriate procedure.