Financial Reporting

A little bit in the weeds, here, but necessary for future understandings by some investors. The proximate matter is FTX’ collapse and bankruptcy (with possibly criminal activities associated).

In a footnote to the financial statements, the company said its “primary shareholder is also the primary shareholder of several related entities which do business with the company.” It didn’t say who the related parties were for any specific transaction it disclosed.
The standard accounting rules for disclosing related-party transactions are vague and have long been considered a weakness in the system. There is no clear-cut rule requiring companies to disclose the players in a related-party transaction. The rules do say, “If necessary to the understanding of the relationship, the name of the related party shall be disclosed.”

Some questions arise. Whose definitions of “necessary” and “understanding?” The way the rule is written, those definitions are left to the company—FTX, here—to determine, and what an investor or customer or client needs or wishes for his own understanding is unimportant.

FTX’s new CEO John Ray exposed part of the much larger problem in his FTX bankruptcy-court filing, in which he acknowledged that FTX’s financial information wasn’t trustworthy and that it was controlled by

 a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated, and potentially compromised individuals.

That potentially compromised part is key. Compromised by whom? In what way? That would seem clearly related to who those “related parties” are.

There’s more, related to arm’s length transactions, which are statutorily required in many business arrangements. Here’s a working definition of arm’s length transactions that’s good enough for our purposes:

A transaction in which the buyer and the seller have no significant, prior relationship. In an arm’s length transaction, neither party has an incentive to act against his/her own interest. That is, the seller seeks to make the price as high as he/she can, and likewise the buyer seeks to make it as low as he/she can. The negotiations for an arm’s length transaction result in the arm’s length price, which is almost always close to the market value of the asset being sold.

That drive for each party to work toward his own interest, and especially the resulting essentially market price for the things being transacted, also is key. How can an investor or a customer or a client know that a particular transaction within an FTX is legitimate or problematic under arms’ length requirements if the investor or customer or client can’t know who the related party is that’s do[ing] business with the company? And why is the investor or customer or client being actively denied this information? What’s being hidden?

This is, as RG Associates founder and member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Emerging Issues Task Force, Jack Ciesielski, said,

a hole that needs to be fixed. The auditors would have to know who the related party is. Why not just put that in there? How hard can it be? By keeping it purposely opaque it’s defeating the purposes of the footnote.

And so do investors, customers, and clients need to know—hence the footnote, even if carefully vague in the present case. And hence the need to plug that loophole: require the related parties to be explicitly identified. There’s no free speech question here, no political speech would be chilled by this. Documenting business arrangements in a purely investment environment has nothing to do with our 1st Amendment.

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