In July 2009, the International Accounting Standards Board (the Board) issued the IFRS for SMEs Standard (the SMEs Standard) and amended in 2015. This standard provides an alternative framework that can be applied by eligible entities in place of the full set of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS® standards).

The SMEs Standard is self-contained, incorporating accounting principles based on extant IFRS Standards which have been simplified to suit the entities that fall within its scope. There are a number of accounting standards and disclosures that may not be relevant for the users of SME financial statements. As a result the standard does not address the following topics:

  • earnings per share
  • interim financial reporting
  • segment reporting
  • insurance (because entities that issue insurance contracts are not eligible to use the standard), and
  • assets held for sale.

In addition, there are certain accounting treatments that are not allowable under the SMEs Standard. An example of these disallowable treatments is the capitalisation of borrowing and development costs – under IFRS for SME’s they would be expensed to profit or loss. Generally, there are simpler methods of accounting available to SMEs than those accounting practices required by full IFRS Standards.

Additionally the SMEs Standard requires that all basic financial instruments are measured at amortised cost using the effective interest method except for investments in non-convertible and non-puttable ordinary and preference shares that are publicly traded or whose fair value can otherwise be measured reliably are measured at fair value through profit or loss. All amortised cost instruments must be tested for impairment. At the same time the standard simplifies the derecognition and disclosure requirements. The SME Standard separates basic and other financial instruments eg hedging instruments, swaps, options. However, the SME Standard still offers significant simplifications even for more complex financial instruments. SMEs can choose to apply the recognition and measurement requirements of IAS 39 if they so wish.

The standard also contains a section on transition, which allows all of the exemptions in IFRS 1, First-time Adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards. It also contains 'impracticability' exemptions for comparative information and the restatement of the opening statement of financial position although these must be disclosed.

As a result of the above, the SMEs Standard requires SMEs to comply with less than 10% of the volume of disclosure requirements applicable to listed companies complying with the full set of IFRS Standards.

There is no universally agreed definition of an SME. No single definition can capture all the dimensions of  small and medium-sized business, or cannot be expected to reflect the differences between firms, sectors, or countries at different levels of development.

Most definitions based on size use measures such as number of employees, net assets total, or annual revenues. However, none of these measures apply well across national borders. The SMEs Standard is intended for use by entities that have no public accountability (ie its debt or equity instruments are not publicly traded or holds assets in a fiduciary capacity eg most banks and financial institutions).

Ultimately, the decision regarding which entities should use the SMEs Standard stays with national regulatory authorities and standard setters. These bodies will often specify more detailed eligibility criteria. If an entity opts to use the SMEs Standard, it must follow the standard in its entirety - it cannot cherry pick between the requirements of the SMEs Standard and those of full IFRS Standards.

The Board makes it clear that the prime users of IFRS Standards are the capital markets. This means that IFRS Standards are primarily designed for quoted companies and not SMEs. The vast majority of the world's companies are small and privately owned, and it could be argued that IFRS Standards are not relevant to their needs or to the needs of their users. It is often thought that small business managers perceive the cost of compliance with accounting standards to be greater than their benefit.

To this end, the SMEs Standard makes numerous simplifications to the recognition, measurement and disclosure requirements in full IFRS Standards. Examples of these simplifications are:

  • goodwill and other indefinite-life intangibles are amortised over their useful lives, but if useful life cannot be reliably estimated, then 10 years
  • a simplified calculation is allowed if measurement of defined benefit pension plan obligations (under the projected unit credit method) involves undue cost or effort
  • the cost model is permitted for investments in associates and joint ventures.

The main argument for the SMEs Standard is the undue cost burden of reporting, which is proportionately heavier for smaller firms. The cost burden of applying the full set of IFRS Standards may not be justified on the basis of user needs. Further, much of the current reporting framework is based on the needs of large business, so SMEs perceive that the full statutory financial statements are less relevant to the users of SME accounts. SMEs also use financial statements for a narrower range of decisions, as they have less complex transactions and therefore less need for a sophisticated analysis of financial statements. Thus, the disclosure requirements in the SMEs Standard are also substantially reduced when compared with those in full IFRS Standards partly because they are not considered appropriate for users' needs and for cost-benefit considerations. Many disclosures in full IFRS Standards are more relevant to investment decisions in capital markets than to the transactions undertaken by SMEs.

There are arguments against different reporting requirements for SMEs in that it may lead to a two-tier system of reporting. Entities should not be subject to different rules, which could give rise to different 'true and fair views'.

The SMEs Standard is a self-contained set of accounting principles that are based on full IFRS Standards, but that have been simplified so that they are suitable for SMEs. The standard has been organised by topic with the intention that the standard would be user-friendly for preparers and users of SME financial statements.

The SMEs Standard and full IFRS Standards are separate and distinct frameworks. Entities that are eligible to apply the SMEs Standard, and that choose to do so, must apply that standard in full and cannot chose the most suitable accounting policy from full IFRS Standards or the SMEs Standard.

The Board are expected to limit revisions to the SME Standard to once every three years although the process means in reality the time frames are longer. The IASB are currently (2021) in the process of consulting on whether and how to align the IFRS for SME standard with the full IFRS standards to better serve the users and preparers of financial statements without causing undue cost and effort to SMEs.

However, the SMEs Standard is naturally a modified version of full IFRS Standards, and not an independently developed set of standards. They are based on recognised concepts and pervasive principles and they will allow easier transition to full IFRS Standards if the SME decides to become a public listed entity. In deciding on the modifications to make to IFRS Standards, the needs of the users have been taken into account, as well as the costs and other burdens imposed upon SMEs. Relaxation of some of the measurement and recognition criteria in IFRS Standards had to be made in order to achieve the reduction in these costs and burdens. Some disclosure requirements are intended to meet the needs of listed entities, or to assist users in making forecasts of the future. Users of financial statements of SMEs often do not make such kinds of forecasts. Small companies pursue different strategies, and their goals are more likely to be survival and stability rather than growth and profit maximisation.

The stewardship function is often absent in small companies, with the financial statements playing an agency role between the owner-manager and the bank.

Where financial statements are prepared using the SMEs Standard, the basis of presentation note and the auditor's report will refer to compliance with the SMEs Standard. This reference may improve access to capital. The SME Standard also contains simplified language that is easily translatable, and explanations of the standards.

In the absence of specific guidance on a particular subject. An SME may, but is not required to, consider the requirements and guidance in full IFRS Standards dealing with similar issues. The Board has produced full implementation guidance for SMEs.

There may be some important tax issues arising for SMEs that adopt the SMEs Standard and this has been cited as one of the main reasons why some SMEs have not adopted the SME Standard.

The SMEs Standard is a response to international demand from developed and emerging economies for a rigorous and common set of accounting standards for smaller and medium-sized businesses that is much simpler than full IFRS Standards. The SMEs Standard should provide improved comparability for users of financial statements while enhancing the overall confidence in the financial statements of SMEs, and reducing the significant costs involved of maintaining standards on a national basis.

Written by a member of the Strategic Business Reporting examining team