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Exactly what is 'mark-to-market'?

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Kai Ryssdal: All right, now that you know all about the politics, it's time to get back to the economics. We're a business program, after all. The Senate's bill would authorize the SEC to suspend something called 'mark-to-market' accounting. Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson got the assignment to explain: so what?


Jeremy Hobson: Well, for help explaining mark-to-market, I've come to professor of accounting Joshua Ronen at the Stern School of Business at NYU. Professor, what is mark-to-market?

Joshua Ronen: It means that if you hold investments in a particular security, you quantify those securities on your balance sheet at the current market value.

But how do you know what the current value is today?

Ronen: This is where the problem starts because in an illiquid market where there is a credit crunch, if you have a fire sale of securities, it's going to be a very low value, and that itself triggers downgrading by rating agencies and potentially more capital requirements, hence the tendency of these institutions to ultimately become bankrupt.

In other words, Ronen says, if these institutions didn't have to value their assets at the current market price when no one wants to buy them, they might be able to get through the credit crunch relatively unscathed. The argument for mark-to-market is it tells investors exactly what buyers are prepared to pay for a security. Cindy Fornelli, the executive director of the Center for Audit Quality, calls it "fair value" accounting.

Cindy Fornelli: Changing the rules, particularly mid-stream, would send a very bad message to investors that you can know what the current value of securities is, as long as the news isn't bad. And then, if the news is bad, we're going to hide that news from you and not let you know.

The fact is the SEC already has the authority to suspend mark-to-market, but a strong push from Congress could be what it takes to finally overcome opposition within the industry.

In New York, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

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