Higher disclosures to be applauded

THE rising debate about Hong Kong accounting changes - banning extraordinary items - appears out of place in a territory where the move for higher disclosure and better quality corporate information is a constant struggle.

Under the new Hong Kong Society of Accountants rules, extraordinary items are banned in favour of exceptional items.

Companies have also been publishing figures breaking out revenue and operating profit from continuing and discontinuing operations.

The change is to be applauded, welcomed, accepted, supported and offered any salutation that comes to the mind of the reader.

Any alteration to accounting standard rules, that offers the reader of corporate numbers a better picture of what is going on, has to be good for the marketplace and its efficiency for investment purposes.

Higher disclosure means better valuation estimates, fairer information distribution and, hopefully, more investors making better-informed investment decisions about the companies involved.

The changeover of accounting rules, on December 31 last year, to the new accounting system has meant some companies have had to reclassify extraordinary items as exceptional items.

This has caused some company reports published in the past nine months to look less exciting than might have been expected under the old rules as the earnings growth has apparently been dampened by the addition of exceptionals.

The changes have led to complaints by corporates that the new rules cause the issue of misleading statements. Some complaints have been aimed at the changes leading to misleading press reports of company results.

Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels decided to go by the old rules and showed extraordinaries in its results. This is likely to get the accounts qualified by the auditors.

For the professional investor, the higher disclosure ought to make the accounts more effective. Given the time they go through the statements, those who find themselves unable to disentangle the numbers ought to seriously wonder whether they should be advising clients at all on investment decisions.

For the financial press, there is a learning process involved in getting to grips with the new information and the new format, and of course the pressure of deadlines can affect the comprehensiveness of a report.

The new accounting rules bring Hong Kong more in line with international standards followed under International Accounting Standards and the British Accounting Standards Board third financial reporting standard (FRS3).

The Accounting Standards Board on FRS3 states the intention behind the change is to make available to users of financial statements all the important information about a company's gains and losses so that they can draw on the figures given to obtain the performance measures they require.

The board says it will no longer be credible for those analysing financial statements to alight on some aggregate number presented in the accounts and, without due consideration of its components, deem that to be the sole indicator of a company's performance.

Unusual items must be assessed, the effect of acquisitions and disposals must be evaluated, and the changes in the value of a company's assets must be considered, before its underlying performance can be understood, says the board.

Judging corporate health on a few ratios will no longer be sufficient or credible in the future.

Such changes can apparently stir fears of information overload, as was the case when analysts wade through the 100 pages or more of information now provided by HSBC Holdings as a British bank.

On a final point, individuals who complain that financial journalists in Hong Kong do a disservice to their readers by superficial coverage of corporate reports might consider when corporate statements get released.

As already mentioned, financial journalism in the territory is constantly riding a learning curve, not least because of the regular changes in local rules governing corporates and in having to deal with developments in China.

But coverage of corporate reports in Hong Kong is sometimes handicapped because the vast majority of corporate statements come in after 8 pm. Even major blue chips leave the issue of their full statements this late on a consistent basis.

It goes without saying, earlier statement releases mean better, more accurate and comprehensive press reports.