How Mark-to-Market Works in Accounting

According to the Harvard Business Review, mark-to-market accounting was what some attributed to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Economists such as Brian Wesbury and Steve Forbes attacked the so-called “fair value accounting” because it created further instability, leading to the eventual crash of the markets that prompted the Federal Reserve to implement the “Fed Put.” Understanding how mark-to-market asset valuation works is an essential piece of information for businesses to make the most of their accounting.

Mark-To-Market Accounting vs. Historical Cost Accounting

Mark-to-market, also known as fair value accounting, measures the current market value of an asset. Historical cost accounting values assets according to their original purchase price.

Mark-to-market is a method to assess the fair value of assets if they were sold at current market conditions with liabilities removed from the business’ obligations. It’s generally a fair assessment in times of normal market functions; but during times of volatility, it can provide a skewed assessment of value.

When businesses prepare their financial statements for a particular fiscal year and assess fair value for assets, the business would update its balance sheet with the value they would receive selling assets at current market conditions. This is opposed to what the business bought the assets for, or the asset’s historical or original purchase price.

This is especially true when it comes to trading in the markets, such as futures contracts. Futures contracts are marked to market on a daily basis at the end of the trading day. Depending on how the commodity traded intraday, short and long contract values are added to or subtracted from their starting basis, respectively.   

Traded Assets and Bad Debts

When it comes to “traded assets,” HBR gives an example of when an asset is to be marked to market every quarter. If a traded asset’s fair market value falls, it lowers the equity on its balance sheet and migrates via its income statement as a loss. For example, if a bank buys a bond for $2 million, then it falls to $1.8 million when the subsequent quarter closes (assuming the bond is still held), the business’ balance sheet will need to be adjusted (excluding any potential tax impacts). The balance sheet should reflect a $200,000 decrease in assets on the left side and a $200,000 decrease in equity. It will also be included on the bank’s income statement, reflecting a $200,000 pretax quarterly loss.

Institutions that provide loans will inevitably see a certain percentage go bad within a fiscal year. After accounting for the actual percentage of so-called uncollectable loans, they will have to re-evaluate such assets through the use of a contra account. This also can apply when companies offer pre-payment discounts to clients to encourage fast collection of accounts receivables (AR). Similarly, such assets will have to be marked down to lower values via a contra account.  


When it comes to valuing assets, businesses that understand the nuances of how accounting standards treat different types of assets will be better prepared to navigate their own tax and accounting needs.


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