Accounting for cryptocurrencies
There are many issues that accountants may encounter in practice for which no accounting standard currently exists; one example is cryptocurrencies. For example, as no accounting standard currently exists to explain how cryptocurrency should be accounted for, accountants have no alternative but to refer to existing accounting standards. This article demonstrates to Strategic Business Reporting (SBR) candidates how this can be done using cryptocurrencies as an example.
In any exam situation, it is expected that candidates will take a few minutes to reflect on each question/scenario and plan their answer – ie in this case, think about what accounting standards might be applicable. This plan will then provide a structure for your answer. SBR candidates should note that it is perfectly acceptable to suggest a reasonable accounting standard and then explain why that standard is not applicable; indeed, this article adopts a similar approach with International Accounting Standard (IAS®) 7, Statement of Cash Flows, IAS 32, Financial Instruments: Presentation and International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS®) 9, Financial Instruments
What is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is an intangible digital token that is recorded using a distributed ledger infrastructure, often referred to as a blockchain. These tokens provide various rights of use. For example, cryptocurrency is designed as a medium of exchange. Other digital tokens provide rights to the use other assets or services, or can represent ownership interests.
These tokens are owned by an entity that owns the key that lets it create a new entry in the ledger. Access to the ledger allows the re-assignment of the ownership of the token. These tokens are not stored on an entity’s IT system as the entity only stores the keys to the Blockchain (as opposed to the token itself). They represent specific amounts of digital resources which the entity has the right to control, and whose control can be reassigned to third parties.
What accounting standards might be used to account for cryptocurrency?
At first, it might appear that cryptocurrency should be accounted for as cash because it is a form of digital money. However, cryptocurrencies cannot be considered equivalent to cash (currency) as defined in IAS 7 and IAS 32 because they cannot readily be exchanged for any good or service. Although an increasing number of entities are accepting digital currencies as payment, digital currencies are not yet widely accepted as a medium of exchange and do not represent legal tender. Entities may choose to accept digital currencies as a form of payment, but there is no requirement to do so.
IAS 7 defines cash equivalents as ‘short-term, highly liquid investments that are readily convertible to known amounts of cash and which are subject to an insignificant risk of changes in value’. Thus, cryptocurrencies cannot be classified as cash equivalents because they are subject to significant price volatility. Therefore, it does not appear that digital currencies represent cash or cash equivalents that can be accounted for in accordance with IAS 7.
Intuitively, it might appear that cryptocurrency should be accounted for as a financial asset at fair value through profit or loss (FVTPL) in accordance with IFRS 9. However, it does not seem to meet the definition of a financial instrument either because it does not represent cash, an equity interest in an entity, or a contract establishing a right or obligation to deliver or receive cash or another financial instrument. Cryptocurrency is not a debt security, nor an equity security (although a digital asset could be in the form of an equity security) because it does not represent an ownership interest in an entity. Therefore, it appears cryptocurrency should not be accounted for as a financial asset.
However, digital currencies do appear to meet the definition of an intangible asset in accordance with IAS 38, Intangible Assets. This standard defines an intangible asset as an identifiable non-monetary asset without physical substance. IAS 38 states that an asset is identifiable if it is separable or arises from contractual or other legal rights. An asset is separable if it is capable of being separated or divided from the entity and sold, transferred, licensed, rented or exchanged, either individually or together with a related contract, identifiable asset or liability. This also corresponds with IAS 21, The Effects of Changes in Foreign Exchange Rates, which states that an essential feature of a non-monetary asset is the absence of a right to receive (or an obligation to deliver) a fixed or determinable number of units of currency. Thus, it appears that cryptocurrency meets the definition of an intangible asset in IAS 38 as it is capable of being separated from the holder and sold or transferred individually and, in accordance with IAS 21, it does not give the holder a right to receive a fixed or determinable number of units of currency.
Cryptocurrency holdings can be traded on an exchange and therefore, there is an expectation that the entity will receive an inflow of economic benefits. However, cryptocurrency is subject to major variations in value and therefore it is non-monetary in nature. Cryptocurrencies are a form of digital money and do not have physical substance. Therefore, the most appropriate classification is as an intangible asset.
IAS 38 allows intangible assets to be measured at cost or revaluation. Using the cost model, intangible assets are measured at cost on initial recognition and are subsequently measured at cost less accumulated amortisation and impairment losses. Using the revaluation model, intangible assets can be carried at a revalued amount if there is an active market for them; however, this may not be the case for all cryptocurrencies. The same measurement model should be used for all assets in a particular asset class. If there are assets for which there is not an active market in a class of assets measured using the revaluation model, then these assets should be measured using the cost model.
IAS 38 states that a revaluation increase should be recognised in other comprehensive income and accumulated in equity. However, a revaluation increase should be recognised in profit or loss to the extent that it reverses a revaluation decrease of the same asset that was previously recognised in profit or loss. A revaluation loss should be recognised in profit or loss. However, the decrease shall be recognised in other comprehensive income to the extent of any credit balance in the revaluation surplus in respect of that asset. It is unusual for intangible assets to have active markets. However, cryptocurrencies are often traded on an exchange and therefore it may be possible to apply the revaluation model.
Where the revaluation model can be applied, IFRS 13, Fair Value Measurement, should be used to determine the fair value of the cryptocurrency. IFRS 13 defines an active market, and judgement should be applied to determine whether an active market exists for particular cryptocurrencies. As there is daily trading of Bitcoin, it is easy to demonstrate that such a market exists. A quoted market price in an active market provides the most reliable evidence of fair value and is used without adjustment to measure fair value whenever available. In addition, the entity should determine the principal or most advantageous market for the cryptocurrencies.
An entity will also need to assess whether the cryptocurrency’s useful life is finite or indefinite. An indefinite useful life is where there is no foreseeable limit to the period over which the asset is expected to generate net cash inflows for the entity. It appears that cryptocurrencies should be considered as having an indefinite life for the purposes of IAS 38. An intangible asset with an indefinite useful life is not amortised but must be tested annually for impairment.
In certain circumstances, and depending on an entity’s business model, it might be appropriate to account for cryptocurrencies in accordance with IAS 2, Inventories, because IAS 2 applies to inventories of intangible assets. IAS 2 defines inventories as assets:
- held for sale in the ordinary course of business
- in the process of production for such sale, or
- in the form of materials or supplies to be consumed in the production process or in the rendering of services.
For example, an entity may hold cryptocurrencies for sale in the ordinary course of business and, if that is the case, then cryptocurrency could be treated as inventory. Normally, this would mean the recognition of inventories at the lower of cost and net realisable value. However, if the entity acts as a broker-trader of cryptocurrencies, then IAS 2 states that their inventories should be valued at fair value less costs to sell. This type of inventory is principally acquired with the purpose of selling in the near future and generating a profit from fluctuations in price or broker-traders’ margin. Thus, this measurement method could only be applied in very narrow circumstances where the business model is to sell cryptocurrency in the near future with the purpose of generating a profit from fluctuations in price.
As there is so much judgement and uncertainty involved in the recognition and measurement of crypotocurrencies, a certain amount of disclosure is required to inform users in their economic decision-making. IAS 1, Presentation of Financial Statements, requires an entity to disclose judgements that its management has made regarding its accounting for holdings of assets, in this case cryptocurrencies, if those are part of the judgements that had the most significant effect on the amounts recognised in the financial statements. Also IAS 10, Events after the Reporting Period requires an entity to disclose any material non-adjusting events. This would include whether changes in the fair value of cryptocurrency after the reporting period are of such significance that non-disclosure could influence the economic decisions that users of financial statements make on the basis of the financial statements.
So, accounting for cryptocurrencies is not as simple as it might first appear. As no IFRS standard currently exists, reference must be made to existing accounting standards (and perhaps even the Conceptual Framework of Financial Reporting). SBR candidates should be prepared to adopt this approach in an exam situation because it allows them to substantiate their conclusion which is an approach that will be expected by employers in practice.
Written by a member of the Strategic Business Reporting examining team