John and Sally like to trade with each other. They have conducted five derivatives trades. In three of the trades, John owes Sally $1 per trade. In the other two, Sally owes John $1 per trade. How much do John and Sally owe each other?
A. John owes Sally $3.
B. Sally owes John $2.
C. John owes Sally $1.
The correct answer – in jurisdictions in which the counterparties have signed ISDA Master Agreements and in which netting is legally enforceable – is C. And C is what firms that follow the US GAAP rules report on their financial statements (the “FASB approach”). Under IFRS rules, they would report A and B.
As the example makes clear, netting is a simple concept. Yet it remains subject to misunderstanding, as this recent article indicates.
Readers will recall we wrote on a similar topic not that long ago, so we won’t repeat our basic argument on the accounting treatment of netting here. But we do think it is important to point out a few additional facts.
“the effect of the netting agreement is to treat all transactions done under it between two parties as a single legal whole with a single net value.”
This point is worth repeating because all transactions under an ISDA netting agreement will net to a single amount upon a counterparty event of default.
Another point worth repeating relates to the legal strength of the netting agreement. ISDA currently has 55 legal opinions on the enforceability of the Master Agreements netting provisions. And the close-out netting provisions of the ISDA Master Agreement have never, to our knowledge, been found to be unenforceable in instances in which ISDA has published an opinion confirming such enforceability.
In other words, netting is the law, netting works and netting accurately reflects the risks between counterparties. That’s why we believe the current FASB approach – which provides financial statement users with the net amount of exposure – is more accurate and transparent.
One final point: the first quarter of 2013 is the first period in which derivative market participants will provide expanded derivative disclosures. US GAAP filers already provide detailed derivative netting disclosures; and will provide further derivative netting information that would be achieved upon a counterparty event of default that cannot be recognized on the balance sheet today. IFRS filers will be required to provide detailed disclosures for the first time. So it will be interesting to see in the IFRS financial statements how much netting currently is being done and is already incorporated in them.
We’re sure there will be yet another round of comparisons between the two accounting approaches in the weeks to come. And that’s a good thing – it’s yet another opportunity to explain what netting is, how it works, and why ISDA has spent so much time and energy on it.