Editor's Note: The debate over mark-to-market rules could result in major changes for financial companies such as Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and many others. We welcome a variety of opinions about how this should be addressed. To submit an opinion, please click here to send an email to the editor.

By Cindy Fornelli, executive director of the Center for Audit Quality.

Some points are beyond dispute in the debate over fair value accounting standards. We can all agree that our economy is in crisis and that our financial institutions are under strain.

But claims that fair value (or mark-to-market) accounting is the root cause of the current economic climate are misguided.

Fair value is a measuring tool designed to reflect reality, not create it. Suggesting it is responsible for our economic woes is like blaming a thermometer for cold weather. In fact, the Securities and Exchange Commission's report to Congress last December concluded that the crisis was precipitated by what it characterized as a "run on the bank" at certain financial institutions, not by fair value accounting.

Sacrificing transparency for investors by suspending fair value would not cure the problems in the financial system, it would only mask them. And in recommending that Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 157 (FAS 157) should be improved, but not suspended, the SEC said it is important "to clearly demarcate the difference between the accounting standards that require measurement of financial instruments at fair value (as required by the U.S. Generally Applied Accounting Principles) and (FAS 157), which only provides guidance on how to estimate fair value." In other words, a suspension of FAS 157 would not remove the requirement to account for assets or liabilities at fair value.

It's worth noting that fair value accounting has served us well for three decades. The importance of market-based standards became painfully apparent during the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. That industry's reluctance to directly confront its overexposure to bad real estate loans extended the length and severity of the crisis, and added to the cost of the government clean-up.

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