This article was first published in the March 2009 edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

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The purpose of IAS 21 is to set out how to account for transactions in foreign currencies and foreign operations.

The standard shows how to translate financial statements into a presentation currency, which is the currency in which the financial statements are presented. This contrasts with the functional currency, which is the currency of the primary economic environment in which the entity operates.

Key issues are the exchange rates, which should be used, and where the effects of changes in exchange rates are recorded in the financial statements.

Functional currency is a concept that was introduced into IAS 21, The Effects of Changes in Foreign Exchange Rates, when it was revised in 2003. The previous version of IAS 21 used a concept of reporting currency. In revising IAS 21 in 2004, the IASB’s main aim was to provide additional guidance on the translation method and determining the functional and presentation currencies.

The functional currency should be determined by looking at several factors. This currency should be the one in which the entity normally generates and spends cash, and that in which transactions are normally denominated. All transactions in currencies other than the functional currency are treated as transactions in foreign currencies.

The entity’s functional currency reflects the transactions, events and conditions under which the entity conducts its business. Once decided on, the functional currency does not change unless there is a change in the underlying nature of the transactions and relevant conditions and events.

Foreign currency transactions should initially be recorded at the spot rate of exchange at the date of the transaction. An approximate rate can be used. Subsequently, at each balance sheet date, foreign currency monetary amounts should be reported using the closing rate. Non-monetary items measured at historical cost should be reported using the exchange rate at the date of the transaction. Non-monetary items carried at fair value, however, should be reported at the rate that existed when the fair values were determined.

Exchange differences arising on monetary items are reported in profit or loss in the period, with one exception. The exception is that exchange differences arising on monetary items that form part of the reporting entity’s net investment in a foreign operation are recognised in the group financial statements, within a separate component of equity. They are recognised in profit or loss on disposal of the net investment. If a gain or loss on a non-monetary item is recognised in equity (for example, property, plant and equipment revalued under IAS 16), any foreign exchange gain or loss element is also recognised in equity.

Presentation currency and functional currency

An entity can present its financial statements in any currency. If the presentation currency differs from the functional currency, the financial statements are retranslated into the presentation currency. If the financial statements of the entity are not in the functional currency of a hyperinflationary economy, then they are translated into the presentation currency as follows:

  • Assets and liabilities (including any goodwill arising on the acquisition and any fair value adjustment) are translated at the closing spot rate at the date of that balance sheet
  • Income statements are translated at the spot rate at the date of the transactions (average rates are allowed if there is no great fluctuation in the exchange rates)
  • All exchange differences are recognised in a separate component of equity.

At the entity level, management should determine the functional currency of the entity based on the requirements of IAS 21.

An entity does not have a choice of functional currency. All currencies, other than the functional one, are treated as foreign currencies. An entity’s management may choose a different currency from its functional one – the presentation currency – in which to present financial statements.

At the group level, various entities within a multinational group will often have different functional currencies. The functional currency is identified at entity level for each group entity. Each group entity translates its results and financial position into the presentation currency of the reporting entity.

Normal consolidation procedures are followed for the preparation of the consolidated financial statements, once all the consolidated entities have prepared their financial information in the appropriate presentation currency.

Translation of a foreign operation

When preparing group accounts, the financial statements of a foreign subsidiary should be translated into the presentation currency as set out above. Any goodwill and fair value adjustments are treated as assets and liabilities of the foreign entity, and therefore retranslated at each balance sheet date at the closing spot rate.

Exchange differences on intra-group items are recognised in profit or loss, unless they are a result of the retranslation of an entity’s net investment in a foreign operation when it is classified as equity.

Dividends paid in a foreign currency by a subsidiary to its parent firm may lead to exchange differences in the parent’s financial statements. They will not be eliminated on consolidation, but recognised in profit or loss. When a foreign operation is disposed of, the cumulative amount of the exchange differences in equity relating to that foreign operation is recognised in profit or loss when the gain or loss on disposal is recognised.


The notion of a group functional currency does not exist under IFRS; functional currency is purely an individual entity or business operation-based concept. This has resulted in IAS 21 becoming one of the more complex standards for firms converting to IFRS.

In addition, many multinational groups have found the process time-consuming and challenging, particularly when considering non-trading group entities where the standard’s emphasis on external factors suggests that the functional currency of corporate subsidiaries might well be that of the parent, regardless of their country of incorporation or the currency in which their transactions are denominated.

Entities applying IFRS need to remember that the assessment of functional currency is a key step when considering any change in the group structure or when implementing any new hedging or tax strategies. Furthermore, should the activities of the entity within the group change for any reason, the determination of the functional currency of that entity should be reconsidered to identify the changes required. Management must take care to document the approach followed in the determination of functional currency for each entity within the group, using a consistent methodology across all cases, particularly when an exercise of judgment is required.

Case study 1

An entity, with the dollar as its functional currency, purchases plant from a foreign entity for €18m on 31 May 2008 when the exchange rate was €2 to $1. The entity also sells goods to a foreign customer for €10.5m on 30 September 2008, when the exchange rate was €1.75 to $1. At the entity’s year end of 31 December 2008, both amounts are still outstanding and have not been paid. The closing exchange rate was €1.5 to $1.
The accounting for the items for the period ending 31 December 2008 would be as follows:

The entity records the plant and liability at $9m at 31 May 2008. At the year-end, the amount has not been paid. Thus using the closing rate of exchange, the amount payable would be retranslated at $12m, which would give an exchange loss of $3m in profit or loss. The asset remains at $9m before depreciation.

The entity will record a sale and trade receivable of $6m. At the year-end, the trade receivable would be stated at $7m, which would give an exchange gain of $1m that would be reported in profit or loss. IAS 21 does not specify where exchange gains and losses should be shown in the statement of comprehensive income.

Case study 2

An entity has a 100%-owned foreign subsidiary, which has a carrying value at a cost of $25m. It sells the subsidiary on 31 December 2008 for €45m. As at 31 December 2008, the credit balance on the exchange reserve, which relates to this subsidiary, was $6m. The functional currency of the entity is the dollar and the exchange rate on 31 December 2008 is $1 to €1.5. The net asset value of the subsidiary at the date of disposal was $28m.

The subsidiary is sold for $45m divided by 1.5 million, therefore $30m. In the parent entity’s accounts a gain of $5m will be shown. In the group financial statements, the cumulative exchange gain in reserves will be transferred to profit or loss, together with the gain on disposal. The gain on disposal is $30m minus $28m, therefore $2m, which is the difference between the sale proceeds and the net asset value of the subsidiary. To this is added the exchange reserve balance of $6m to give a total gain of $8m, which will be included in the group statement of comprehensive income.

Graham Holt is an ACCA examiner and principal lecturer in accounting and finance at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School