Fair Value Hierarchy: Definition, Levels, Examples

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Most companies use the historical value method of deriving their asset’s value. This process includes taking the asset’s cost and deducting any impairment and depreciation to reach the book value. The same method applies to deriving the value of liabilities. However, some accounting standards also require or allow companies to measure items at fair value.

What is a Fair Value?

The term “fair value” has various definitions in accounting and finance. It usually refers to the price a willing buyer and seller will pay or receive for an asset in an orderly transaction. The fair value of an item will also depend on the measurement date. Similarly, it may also be the price paid to transfer a liability in similar market conditions at a specific date.

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In short, the fair value represents the market value of an asset or liability. However, there are several criteria attached to it. As mentioned, it requires the market participants to be willing to transact. It also needs an orderly transaction or one considered an arm’s length transaction. The criterion for a measurement date is also crucial to establish a fair value for an item.

Sometimes, however, the fair value of an item may not be straightforward to determine. Since fair value is market-based and not entity-specific, there are several hurdles that companies may face. For example, companies may come across several fair values for a specific item from different markets. These inputs can confuse how to determine an item’s fair value. For that, companies must use the fair value hierarchy.

What is the Fair Value Hierarchy?

The fair value hierarchy refers to the different classes in which accounting standards classify inputs. As mentioned, companies may come across several sources that provide information about an item’s fair value. These values may differ based on the input they take. Similarly, the markets where these prices generate also impact the fair value.

The fair value hierarchy categorizes inputs used in fair value determination into three levels. This hierarchy provides the highest priority to Level 1 inputs. In case these inputs are not available, companies must use Level 2 inputs. Lastly, companies can use Level 3 inputs when the above two cannot be determined. Each of these differs from the others, as discussed below.

Level 1 Inputs

Level 1 inputs include quoted prices for identical items in an active market on the measurement date. For example, it may be a bid price for an asset or an ask price for a liability. Level 1 inputs are the most reliable evidence for fair value.

Level 2 Inputs

Level 2 inputs are directly or indirectly observable inputs rather than quoted prices. These may include the value of similar items in active or inactive markets. For example, a valuation multiple for a business unit based on the sale of similar entities is a level 2 input. After Level 1, level 2 inputs take priority.

Level 3 Inputs

In some cases, identifying level 1 and 2 inputs may not be possible. Therefore, companies must use level 3 inputs that are unobservable. It may include prices from a company’s own data, adjusted for specific conditions. For example, cash or profit forecasts used to evaluate an asset would fall into this category. Level 3 inputs have the lowest priority in the fair value hierarchy.

Conclusion

Fair value is the market price for an asset or liability at a specific date between willing market participants. The fair value hierarchy identifies three categories for inputs. Usually, companies use level 1 inputs that have the highest priority. When level 1 inputs are not available, companies must use level 2 inputs. Lastly, companies can use level 3 inputs if none of the above can be determined. Level 3 inputs take the lowest priority.

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