Sovereign Debt Crisis Demands Financial Management Reform by Governments

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    Nov 04, 2011
    New York, New York

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    Sovereign Debt Crisis Demands Financial Management Reform by Governments

    The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), the global organization for the accountancy profession with members and associates in 125 countries, applauds Europe’s focus on resolving the current financial crisis. However, IFAC warns that—in addition to addressing the symptoms—the underlying causes must also be addressed, by reforming governments’ substandard financial management practices. 

    The situation in Greece is only the tip of the iceberg. Substandard accounting, auditing, and financial management led eventually to financial reporting fraud by the Greek Government, and ultimately triggered a market reaction that revealed much more widespread financial fragility in the European public sector, evidenced by the need for bail-outs and increased debt servicing costs. In Germany, the government recently disclosed an accounting error equivalent to 2.6% of GDP. To put the size of that error in context, the cost of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in early 2011 was equivalent to approximately 5% of GDP. That this error was not obvious to Germany’s Ministry of Finance is indicative of the general state of government financial management. A similar, though smaller, error reported in the Irish Government’s financial statements this week corroborates this negative assessment of the state of public sector financial management.

    Fiscal mismanagement in the public sector is not isolated to Europe; it is a global problem. At the core, it stems from political shortsightedness and the inadequate systems that governments use to manage public finances, in particular the use of cash-based accounts in a highly complex financial world.

    “The fact that most governments in the developed world pretend they can manage and control their finances using only cash information tells us that something is seriously wrong,” said Ian Ball, IFAC chief executive officer. "The cash-based information commonly used for budgeting and accounting is both simplistic and anachronistic, and doesn’t come close to accurately describing the complexity of their financial positions. It is a virtual guarantee of financial mismanagement.”

    “If we asked a typical household to prepare a balance sheet they would include all of their assets and liabilities—including their house and car, loans, mortgages, etc.—not just their cash. If governments ran their health systems without using available modern medical information and technology, they would be held negligent. Yet, in essence, this is what governments do in their financial management. It is easier for them to operate this way, but it is potentially fatal to economic growth and financial stability,” added Göran Tidström, IFAC president.

    As early as 2007, IFAC stated that it “is concerned that the standards and regulations governing sovereign issuers are not of sufficient quality to protect investors and ensure the stability of capital markets.” In 2011, the consequences of poor financial management in the public sector are all too apparent.  Consistent with its recent submission to the G-20, IFAC calls for urgent research and action to address this critical, but neglected, component of the international financial system.

    IFAC recommends that work should be conducted or commissioned by the Financial Stability Board (FSB), to consider the nature of institutional changes that are needed in public sector financial management to facilitate greater transparency and accountability and to protect the public and investors in government bonds. IFAC believes the FSB should examine reformed fiscal arrangements which include:

    • Audited financial statements within six months of year end;
    • Budgeting, appropriations, and reporting on the accrual basis;
    • Full transparency in fiscal positions ahead of general elections, ensuring that voting is fully informed;
    • Independent, audited projections of fiscal position to accompany budgets; and
    • Limitations on deficit spending, or at least full transparency around the reasons for deficit spending and explanations of how, over an economic cycle, fiscal balance will be restored.

    In calling for financial management reform in governments, IFAC stands willing to assist the FSB or other relevant authorities in bringing about such change.

    About IFAC

    IFAC is the global organization for the accountancy profession dedicated to serving the public interest by strengthening the profession and contributing to the development of strong international economies. IFAC is comprised of 164 members and associates in 125 countries and jurisdictions, representing approximately 2.5 million accountants in public practice, education, government service, industry, and commerce. 

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