Mark to Market Accounting


While every business and organization relies on assets, their value fluctuates over time, often subjected to market volatility, especially in the case of financial instruments. This is where mark-to-market accounting comes in to, well, account for those fluctuations and provide a more accurate picture of an organization’s financial situation. 

So, in this guide, we define mark-to-market accounting in detail, explain how it works, where it’s used, discuss its benefits and limitations and provide a practical example to help you understand the concept better. 

Definition of Mark to Market Accounting

Mark to market (or MTM, if you prefer accounting abbreviations) is an accounting method that values assets based on their current price on the market, showing how much a company can make if it sells the asset today. It provides a more accurate appraisal of an organization’s current financial state based on momentary market conditions. It allows for measuring the changing value of assets and liabilities prone to fluctuations. 

That said, mark-to-market accounting might lead to an inaccurate presentation of the assets’ value, especially in times of high volatility. This method is also known under the terms fair value accounting or market value accounting. It’s widely used in trading, investing, and even personal accounting. The alternative method to MTM is historical cost accounting which values the assets based on their original cost.

Now that we have mark-to-market accounting explained, let’s dive deeper into this concept.  

How Do Companies Mark Assets to Market?

Mark to market is an accounting standard regulated by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). This entity creates the accounting and reporting guidelines for businesses and nonprofits in the US. Under the FASB mark-to-market accounting rules “SFAS 157 Fair Value Measurements,” you can find the GAAP requirement to mark to market accounting, the definition of fair value, and how to correctly measure it. 

The mark-to-market accounting principle involves adjusting the value of an asset to reflect the current market conditions. In the closing month of the accounting year, each company must prepare financial statements where they report their asset value, among other things. The mark-to-market value for assets that are frequently traded is easy to determine. Illiquid assets are more challenging to mark to market. In such cases, the asset is valued at an amount the company would get if it sold the asset now. 

A controller can also choose from two other valuation methods for liquidated purchases, the default risk or the interest-rate risk method. The default-risk process involves the probability that an asset isn’t worth the original value. The interest-rate risk method compares the value of the assets with similar assets.

At the end of the fiscal year, the company’s balance sheet will feature accounts that maintain their historical cost (the original paid price) and accounts that reflect the current market value. 

Are All Assets Marked to Market?

Not all assets are marked to market. The mark-to-market accounting method is primarily used in the financial industry to adjust the value of financial assets and liabilities, which tend to fluctuate over time. In sectors such as retail and manufacturing, companies have most of their value in long-term assets such as equipment (PPE), properties, plant, and assets that fall under inventory accounting and accounts receivable. These assets are not marked to market throughout the accounting cycle. The correction in value is expressed through impairment as circumstances require. 

The mark-to-model method is also used for illiquid assets. If we compare mark to market accounting vs mark to model, guesswork plays a role in the latter, and values are assigned based on financial models instead of current market prices.

Uses of Mark-to-Market Accounting

The mark-to-market accounting treatment is primarily used in financial services and investments, where assets must be marked to market daily. It’s one of the accounting methods that has been helpful in basic accounting when assets need to be adjusted to match the current market conditions. Below you can see how mark-to-market caters to specific industries and areas of accounting.

Mark-to-Market in Investments

The mark-to-market accounting method has wide use in the investment market and derivative accounting. Mutual funds, for instance, are marked to market daily at the market close, giving investors a more accurate idea of the fund’s net asset value (NAV).

Mark-to-market accounting is further applied in securities trading, where the value or price of a portfolio, security, or account is synchronized with the current market value rather than what’s recorded in the book. 

MTM is also used in future accounts, helping traders meet those margin requirements. When the current market value causes a margin account to decrease below the minimum maintenance margin level, the account holder will deal with a margin call, meaning more cash needs to be deposited to meet the margin requirements. 

Traders who focus on futures and future options should be aware of the 1256 tax treatment in mark-to-market accounting. Namely, the Section 1256 contract is an investment defined by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as a regulated futures contract, foreign currency contract, non-equity option, dealer, dealer securities futures contract, or equity option. These contracts must be marked to market if kept until the end of the tax year. They are treated as if they were sold for a price that aligns with the fair market value. Their gains or losses are recorded as either short-term or long-term capital gains. The mark-to-market gain or loss is unrealized but must be reported on the holder’s tax return. It’s recommended to use reputable tax and accounting services to handle these complex filings. 

Mark-to-Market Accounting in Financial Services

Businesses that provide financial services such as payday loan companies often need to adjust their asset accounts due to borrowers who have stopped making payments on their loans as agreed in the contracts. Some of their debts will be classified as bad debts, meaning the amount must be written off due to circumstances like the borrower’s death, bankruptcy, disappearance, etc. In such cases, the company will need to mark its assets to fair value, typically by using the contra asset account “allowance for bad credits.

Similarly, a business that offers discounts to quickly fill up its accounts receivables (AR) will have to bring the AR to a lower value by using a contra asset account. The changes will be recorded using the double-entry accounting method, meaning when customers use their discount, the company will record a debit to the AR and credit the sales revenue for the total sales price. Lastly, the company will use an estimated percentage of customers expected to take advantage of the discount to debit the sales discount, which is a contra-revenue account, and credit the “allowance for sales discount,” which is a contra-asset account. 

Mark to Market in Personal Accounting

In personal accounting, the mark-to-market value of an asset will be the same as the cost to replace it at a given time, also known as replacement cost or the replacement value. The amount you paid is a historical cost, while the replacement cost will depend on the current conditions of the market. For instance, the replacement cost to build your home from scratch will be listed on a homeowner’s insurance, not the amount you originally paid for it.

Mark-to-Market Accounting Method for Pension Accounting

Giant corporations like AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Honeywell International have adopted the mark-to-market accounting principle for the valuation of their pension plans instead of the typical amortizing or smoothing accounting method. This method in corporate accounting recognizes the gains and losses in the year they occur by adjusting pension plans with fair value. It reflects pension plans’ current returns in assets, changes in discount rates on liabilities, and other gains or losses instead of moving the revenues and expenses from one period to another, as in the smoothing approach.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board and the International Accounting Standards Board encourage the use of this method for greater convergence of global accounting standards. According to accounting fraud statistics, the shift towards mark-to-market accounting is believed to be motivated by corporations’ efforts to avoid reporting billions of dollars in losses, mainly from the 2008-2009 recession. 

Benefits of Mark-to-Market Accounting

Let’s go over the reasons why this accounting method is generally popular and well-regarded. 

Provides a More Realistic View of Company’s Financial Status

Mark-to-market accounting provides a more realistic financial picture, which is especially helpful for stockholders in determining whether a firm is on the verge of going out of business. Proponents of this accounting method believe that the Savings and Loans Crisis of 1989 could’ve been prevented if banks and other lending entities had used this accounting method rather than the historical cost accounting. The crises occurred because banks recorded the original price they paid for assets, making adjustments in the books only when assets were sold. 

Prevents Banks from Overextending Loans

Another benefit of the mark-to-market accounting treatment is that it prevents banks from overextending loans. When a company seeks a loan, this method can determine the borrower’s current financial health. For instance, if a retail chain asks for a $1 million loan to establish a new location, looking at the historical value of its assets might be a dangerous route. Suppose they paid $600,000 to develop their current location five years ago. The equipment, the space, and everything has gone through wear and tear, meaning that the original investment has likely depreciated, resulting in a lower value for the collectible collateral. 

Mark-to-market accounting can help banks and lending institutions determine the fair market of collectible collateral. In some instances, banks and other lenders will have to decide whether to extend the credit to those who aren’t able to pay them back. By knowing the actual market value, banks and lenders can make more informed decisions on whether it makes sense to extend a loan and by how much. 

Cons of Mark-to-Market Accounting 

Naturally, this accounting method also comes with some downsides. Let’s see what they are. 

The Fair Market Value Is Not Always Accurate 

The mark-to-market accounting method may be inaccurate because the fair market value is subject to an agreement between two sides willing to complete a transaction. The amount they agree upon might not reflect the actual worth of an asset.

Financial Crises Can Make it Even More Inaccurate

In times of recession, businesses can mark their assets below their actual worth because of unfavorable market conditions. Banks and investment firms may experience a significant drop in net worth during such times due to companies in which they have invested decreasing their value. While, in reality, those assets may be worth more, the perception of reduced value may lead them to sell their assets for unfavorable prices only to boost their cash reserves. Such behavior can lead to a deeper recession or economic crash, similar to the 2007-2010 subprime mortgage crises.

What Are Mark to Market Losses?

Mark-to-market losses occurs when an asset is marked to market at a lower value than the price paid to acquire the asset. The difference in prices is known as mark-to-market loss. It’s common for financial instruments. For instance, mutual funds experience mark-to-market losses when their NAV is higher one day and drops the next. Mark-to-market losses are paper or unrealized losses expressed through an accounting entry rather than an actual sale. It will be considered a capital loss if the holder sells their assets at a lower value than the price at which they were acquired.

How do you calculate gain or loss in MTM?

Gains and losses in mark-to-marketing accounting are calculated based on fluctuations, whether day by day or over time. If an asset is valued daily, first, you need to calculate the change in value, which is the difference between the previous day’s price and the current day’s price. 

Change in value = Price of the Current Day – Price of the Prior Day

The gain/loss will be calculated as:

Gain/loss = Change in Value x Total Quantity

For instance if a stock changes its price from $3 on day one to $4 on day two, and if 100 stocks were involved, the formula would be $1 (change in value) x 100 (total quantity) = $100. In this case, we have a gain of $100. 

If you want to calculate the cumulative gain/loss, the formula would be: 

Cumulative Gain/Loss = Gain/loss of the Current day – Gain/loss of the Prior Day.  

These calculations don’t have to be done manually if you use accounting software. 

Mark-to-Market Accounting Examples

In futures trading, accounts are marked to market daily. A futures contract obligates the buyer and the seller to buy, respectively sell, the underlying asset at a predetermined price on a predetermined date, regardless of the market price at the due date. Naturally, this involves a long and short trader on each side of the contract. 

The exchange marks traders’ accounts daily to match the market value by settling the gains and losses resulting from fluctuations in the security’s value. If, for instance, the futures contract drops in value on day two, the long margin account will be decreased while the short margin account will increase to reflect the new value. In the opposite situation, the margin account of the long position holder will be increased while the short futures account will be decreased.

Practical Mark-to-Market Accounting Example

Suppose a strawberry farmer takes a short position in 20 future strawberry contracts on January 16 to hedge against dropping commodity prices. Each contract is for 1,000 pounds, meaning the farmer is hedging against a price decline on 20,000 pounds of strawberries. The cost of one pound is $1.5 meaning the farmer’s account will be marked as $1.5 x 20,000 = $30,000.

Since the strawberry farmer holds a short position in these contracts, any drop in market price will increase their account. Oppositely, if the value of the market rises, this event will be recorded as a decrease in their account. For instance, if on day two, the price per pound goes from $1.5 to $2, the farmer’s account will note a loss of $0.5 x 20,000 = $10,000. The long trader’s account will increase by $10,000. Both accounts will be settled for the day-to-day market fluctuations until the futures contract expires or until the farmer decides to close their short position and take a long part on an equally mature contract. 

DayFutures PriceChange in ValueGain/LossCumulative Gain/LossAccount Balance

Mark-to-Market Accounting FAQs

What is mark to market accounting?

The mark-to-market method in accounting values assets based on momentary market conditions, also known as fair value. The value is calculated based on how much a company can make if it sells the asset today.

Is mark-to-market accounting legal?

Yes, this accounting method is legal and regulated by the FASB. Over the years, some companies have used this method to cover their financial losses. That said, there are both pros and cons of mark-to-market accounting. 

Is mark-to-market accounting still used?

The mark-to-market accounting method is still used in many sectors. It’s the primary accounting method for financial services and investment companies where the assets’ price needs to be adjusted daily. Some corporations use it for pension plans and other purposes, while individuals use it to calculate their net worth. 

What is marked to market with an example?

Suppose two parties engage in a futures contract for 1,000 pounds of almonds, each pound priced at $3. The contract has a six-month maturity period. The total value of the security is 1,000 x $3 = $3,000. By the end of the next trading day, the price per pound of almonds rose to $3.5. This event will be recorded as a $500 [($3 – $2.5) x 1,000] increase on the trader that holds the long position, and a decrease for the same amount will be recorded on the short trader’s account on that specific day. 

In mark-to-market accounting for traders, the gain will also be recorded as “other comprehensive income” in the equity section on the balance sheet. The gain will increase the “asset and marketable securities.” In a case of a loss, marketable securities would need to be decreased by the loss amount, and the loss will also be recorded on the income statement as an unrealized loss.

When did mark-to-market accounting begin?

Bookkeepers first used the mark-to-market accounting treatment in the 1800s. The practice has been blamed for fueling the Great Depression, bank collapses, and other recessions, which prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to suspend it in 1938. After the suspension of mark-to-market accounting, the method gained popularity again, often in the form of creative accounting,  in the 1980s. It’s also believed to have contributed to a new set of financial scandals in the 1990s. That said, mark-to-market accounting has been a part of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) since the 1990s. 

What companies use mark-to-market accounting?

Mark-to-market is the most prevalent in the financial services industry, where assets’ value must be adjusted daily to the current market conditions. Corporations and other businesses may also adopt it.

Did mark-to-market accounting cause the financial crisis?

Opponents of this accounting method blame it for driving a set of financial crises and scandals throughout time. According to accounting statistics, the impact of mark-to-market accounting on the 1930s Great Depression, 2007-2009 Great Recession, and other financial crises is enormous. While many factors come into play when it comes to a market crash, what seemed to pull the trigger in 2007, was the new accounting regulation FAS-157, known as the mark-to-market accounting rule, which required financial institutions to update the prices of illiquid securities. It resulted in write-downs in many financial derivates, which made many big banks insolvent.

Is mark-to-market accounting the same as fair value?

Mark to market is the same thing as fair value. 

Is mark-to-market accounting GAAP acceptable according to the FASB?

Yes, mark to marketing is GAAP acceptable. 

What is the difference between MTM and P&L?

Mark to market (MTM) is an accounting method that values assets based on the current market conditions. Profit and Loss (P&L) is the financial statement that summarizes the revenues and expenses during a specific period. Investors and analysts are among the users of accounting information in the P&L statement. 

Why is MTM negative?

The main downfall of the mark-to-marketing accounting principle is that the fair value upon which two sides have agreed may not reflect the actual worth of an asset. During financial crises, when the market is volatile, this method tends to be less accurate. 

What is MTM profit?

MTM is mainly used in the investment and financial sectors, where profit involves daily gains from upward price fluctuations. The profit could be expressed over statement periods, no matter if the positions are opened or closed.

When did mark-to-market accounting begin?

It dates back to the 1800s but was officially adopted in the 20th century. 

Are forwards marked to market?

Forward contracts are not marked-to-market.

What is mark-to-market in real estate?

Mark-to-market accounting in real estate accounting means valuing real estate assets based on the price the property would sell for if it were sold today. It could also be used to determine the value of a property based on current market rents instead of using current tenants’ rents. 

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