SEC gets power to suspend the mark-to-market accounting rule

— -- A hotly contested accounting rule at the center of the financial crisis has reared up again in the bailout bill, but not in a way that will answer questions for months.

The bill gives the Securities and Exchange Commission the power to suspend the mark-to-market accounting rule.

This arcane accounting rule requires companies to write down the value of certain assets to their current market value — defined as the price that similar assets are fetching in an open market.

Some investors are blaming the mark-to-market rule for exacerbating the financial crisis.

When troubled banks and financial institutions sell securities at firesale prices, it forces healthier institutions to slash the value of their own comparable securities. Those write-downs may erode investor confidence and may force these firms to raise additional capital.

Supporters of mark-to-market accounting say what assets fetch in an open market is the only reliable measure of value. Not using these prices allows financial firms to arbitrarily set asset values, perhaps too high.

The bill gives more heft to guidance the SEC issued on mark-to-market accounting on Sept. 30, says Michael Bopp, partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. The SEC said companies are not required to mark assets to values that result from thinly trading markets.

But the real effect of the bill won't be known for some time, Bopp says. The SEC is required to study mark-to-market accounting and its role in recent bank failures and deliver results in 90 days.