By Huw Jones
LONDON (Reuters) - The United States is expected to allow its top companies to use global book-keeping rules, ensuring they will gain currency despite a lack of enthusiasm from the country's regulators, accounting industry officials said on Monday.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that full-scale adoption of rules known as IFRS and set by the London-based International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), had little support, dealing a blow to hopes among investors of their universal adoption.
The United States uses generally accepted accounting principles or GAAP.
But leaders of the top 20 economies (G20) want a single set of accounting rules built around the IASB by mid-2013 to make it easier for investors to compare companies around the world.
The SEC's long-awaited and delayed staff report was a bitter blow for the IASB but industry officials said it was not the end of the story.
Nigel Sleigh-Johnson, head of financial reporting at UK-based accounting body ICAEW, said the IASB needed to pick itself up and focus on its growing workload as it was clear the SEC will not decide to adopt IFRS in any comprehensive way.
"I don't see the U.S. being cast adrift into glorious isolation. I still think it's on the table to have an option to use IFRS, which would go down well with the largest U.S. companies," Sleigh-Johnson said.
Compared with a few years ago, it was not so essential for the United States to adopt the rules as they have gained so much momentum, added Andrew Buchanan, global head of IFRS at auditors BDO International.
The IASB reacted coolly over the weekend to the SEC report.
"While recognising the right of the SEC to determine the method and timing for incorporation of IFRS in the United States, we regret that the staff report is not accompanied by a recommended action plan for the SEC," Michel Prada, chairman of the IASB's trustees said in a statement.
"For the benefit of both U.S. and international stakeholders, the trustees look forward to the SEC resolving the continued uncertainty regarding the US's commitment to global accounting standards," Prada added.
The trustees will study the SEC report and "take further steps as necessary", Prada said, without elaborating.
The IASB and its U.S. counterpart, the FASB, have been locked in joint meetings for years to "converge" or align their rules in a bid to bring America fully on board the IFRS train.
The hope was that convergence would alleviate U.S. worries about giving up regulatory sovereignty in setting rules that are fundamental to its economy and companies.
But even alignment has faced hurdles in recent months due to a lack of consensus, forcing the G20 to push back its deadline.
Industry officials say the delay should also be viewed against the backdrop of a U.S. presidential election campaign and staff changes underway at the SEC.
Ed Nusbaum, chief executive of Grant Thornton, a global auditing firm and a member of FASB's oversight body, said he was not surprised by the SEC position.
"Although it delays adoption of IFRS in the U.S., I am optimistic that the convergence of accounting standards will continue and that we will slowly move towards a global set of principles," Nusbaum said.
The IASB, whose rules are used in over 100 countries, including the European Union, wanted a firm date from the United States to bolster convergence work and encourage countries like Japan, Singapore or Malaysia which are sitting on the fence.
IASB chairman Hans Hoogervorst said at the weekend that momentum behind IFRS becoming "global accounting standards is irreversible", a view several industry officials backed.
Jerome Haas, president of the French accounting standards board ANC, said while it was important to continue work on global rules, the IASB must move on and work within "new parameters" and not be dominated by alignment work.
"Let's only issue standards which are good and serve actual needs. You need to explain what are the differences between standards so investors can read statements," Haas said.
Hoogervorst said the IASB was already working on a new agenda to include more input from local regulators like France's ANC, saying the "era of convergence is coming to an end".
"We are at a pivotal moment for our organization... This is the right time to come on board and participate in shaping the future of global accounting," Hoogervorst said.
(Editing by Mark Potter and David Cowell)