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Lease accounting update: “more likely than not” is no more February 17, 2011

Posted by Bob Cook in Financial Planning & Analysis, Lease Accounting.
21 comments

FASB/IASB have dropped one of the most controversial parts of their proposed lease accounting.   The Exposure Draft, released in August 2010, had called for lessees with options-to-renew to capitalize lease obligations for renewal periods that were “more likely than not” to occur.   This part of the accounting was attacked on many grounds.  First, it was going to require lessees to undertake a lot of work in making the assumptions as to whether renewals were more likely than not to occur, and many thought the benefits to users of financial statements were not great enough to justify the expense of compliance.  Second, in many cases the assumptions would end up being arbitrary, bringing into question whether capitalizing renewal periods had any value.  Third and perhaps ultimately most important, it seemed to fly in the face of other accounting doctrine.  Until a lessee signs up for a renewal period, regardless as to whether an option-to-renew exists, the renewal period is not an obligation.  It just didn’t seem right to put it on the balance sheet.

I think FASB/IASB made the right choice in eliminating this part of their proposal and had recommended that writers of comment letters to FASB/IASB point out the flaws and problems associated with capitalizing renewal periods.  Many others made similar recommendations, and many of the 700-some comment letters received by FASB/IASB recommended that this aspect of the accounting be eliminated.

The people have been heard!

Before “the people” start celebrating, though, they should understand that there will still be a need to evaluate each and every lease, with an option to renew, to determine whether there is an economic incentive in that option such that renewal of the lease is “reasonably assured” … in which case the renewal period would have to be capitalized … just as is the case under present accounting for capital (or financing) leases. 

This test will be much less onerous, though.  FASB/IASB are going to work on the exact wording, but this “reasonably assured” test has a much higher bar than would have the “more likely than not test” … akin to the difference between 99% and 51%.  Few leases will go over the bar and most won’t even come near it so assumption-making will be much easier, and easier to justify to auditors, than it would have been with “more likely than not”. 

Still, though, lessees will have more to do than they do today.  Under today’s accounting, most companies only need to apply the “reasonably assured” test to a very small group of leases that, due usually to their long length, are classified as capital leases.  Many companies have no such capital leases.  Now, though, companies will have to apply the test to all leases.  The process burden will be much, much less than it would have been with “more likely than not” … but it’s going to be measurably more than it is at present.

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2011: Year of the Rabbit …. and Decade of the Corporate Real Estate Exec February 13, 2011

Posted by Bob Cook in Alternative Workplace Strategies, Corporate HQ, Financial Planning & Analysis, Green Initiatives, Lease Accounting, M & A Integration, Profession of Corporate Real Estate.
9 comments

This Thursday ends the 15-day Chinese New Year Celebration.  According to the Chinese Zodiac, we’re entering the “Year of the Rabbit”.   We may also, though, be entering the “Decade of the Corporate Real Estate Exec”, the decade in which corporate real estate execs rise to truly strategic roles in their organizations.

The year 2011 will usher in an era of increased responsibility for corporate real estate professionals.  Events playing out this year will put corporate real estate executives, their staffs, and their advisors front and center.  The spotlight will be hot, but rewarding … for those ready to perform.

Leaving the oughts behind

With a name like that … “the oughts” … we should have known the decade from 2001 through 2010 was going to be tough.  Slashing budgets, laying-off people, constantly explaining why the company still has too much space:  it was not the best of times for corporate real estate folks. 

To be fair, the oughts did have their fun moments:  implementing alternative workplaces, expanding into China and India, building solar-power arrays, planning next-generation data centers.  But while these activities were sometimes high-profile (in the sense of “gee-whiz”, isn’t this cool), for the most part they tended to be tactical activities in service to specific divisions or functions … away from the central concerns of headquarters.  They did, however, help raise the self-image of corporate real estate professionals who no longer are satisfied with a backstage, custodial role.  Most are ready to perform on stage.

The good and the bad

So, if you’re in corporate real estate, how will 2011 differ from the past?

Good News:  You won’t be tasked to slash your budgets; corporate profits are doing just fine and executive management is now focused on growth rather than contraction.   You won’t be consolidating (unless your company buys another company to integrate); you’ve already done your consolidations.  And you won’t have to lay off any more of your staff; thank God, that’s over … or at least it is if you avoid being on the “losing end” of a Merger.

Bad News:  Some of you may lament, though, that some of the things that were fun in the past won’t be on the agenda in 2011:  You won’t be constructing many new buildings; we have enough of those for a while.  You also won’t be building out much space inside your buildings because you probably have built space you’re still not using.  You won’t be flying across oceans looking for new space; globalization is taking a breather while companies wait for worldwide demand to catch up with worldwide capacity.  And you probably won’t be doing a big outsourcing; where outsourcing makes sense, you probably already have.

The shape of 2011 and the decade to come

The Year of the Rabbit, CY2011, and the coming decade will bring a new world shaped by these forces: 

  • cash hoards at leading companies in a “winner-takes-all” economy
  • attractive real estate markets  from an occupier’s perspective, for at least a few more years in most locales and indefinitely in some
  • new advances in “green technologies” and lowering prices due to competition
  • the establishment of a new lease accounting standard
  • strained budgets at all levels of government

The New Agenda

This world will bring those corporate real estate professionals who are ready for the stage closer to the core of their companies’ businesses.  The new corporate real estate agenda for the “Year of the Rabbit” and beyond:

  • Acquisition Integration
  • Balance sheet Management
  • Corporate Citizenship
  • Design & Management of Processes
  • Employee Retention and Recruitment

 

Acquisition Integration.  Most leading companies are sitting on cash hoards and have large borrowing capacity, setting the stage to make the year 2011 record-breaking in terms of M&A activity.  Corporate real estate execs will play key roles in integrating acquired companies, as they have been, but those, savvy enough to grab the opportunity, will engage beyond managing cost-saving consolidations.  They will take a leadership role in managing the “soft art” of cultural integration. Corporate real estate execs have an opportunity to address a vexing problem: most M&A’s are unsuccessful.  Most experts think the obstacle to success is cultural incompatibilities.  By simply extending corporate real estate’s responsibilities from the physical environment to the social environment and thinking of themselves, not as “facility engineers” but, as “social engineers”, corporate real estate execs can … and should … take on the challenge of successfully merging cultures to achieve M&A success.

Balance Sheet Management.  All that cash and borrowing capacity at leading companies are going to make real estate central to discussions about financial structure.  Companies need to decide whether they should continue to retain all that cash (something that stockholders don’t like), pay down debt (something that has probably already been done if the company has a lot of cash), give cash to shareholders via stock buybacks or dividends (something that company managers don’t like because they want to keep money for a “rainy day”) or spend it (something that certainly cannot be done foolishly.)    It turns out that spending cash to buy company facilities bridges these concerns: it keeps wealth in the company in a way that can be turned into cash if needed, earns more than cash-equivalent investments, and can often support business operations better than can leasing property.  Real estate is, thus, destined to become important in discussions about a company’s financial structure, particularly over the next few years while an “occupier’s market” reigns and purchases can be made cheaply.  Also entering the discussion will be the new lease accounting standard that will transform the balance sheets of many companies and bring real estate strategy (own vs lease, lease duration, utilization) even further into discussions about company financial structure.

Corporate Citizenship.  Our governments are broke (to use an imprecise but, I think, meaningful term.)  Corporates will be called upon to pick up the slack … either forcefullly by regulation or voluntarily… and they will have to get serious about social and environmental responsibilities.   Federal and state governments can’t afford tax breaks for energy-savings and environmental-protection so companies will be expected to beef up their sustainability programs.  While technological advances may improve the ROI on energy-saving and environmental-protection investments, companies will be expected to make these investments even where there’s no payback.  As for local governments, they can’t afford redevelopment programs so companies will be expected to participate in urban revitalization projects, even when no subsidies are available.  There may even be a return to the civic-mindedness of the 1960’s when corporations built their headquarters with plazas to serve as centers of their communities.  Corporate real estate professionals will be managing much of this good corporate citizenship.

Design & Management of Processes.  As the role of corporate real estate execs migrates towards the center of the company, execs will find themselves spending less time on implementation and more time designing and managing processes to lead, coordinate and govern the implementers, who will increasingly be outsourced providers.  Acquisition integration, for example, requires processes to plan consolidations, account for them, and track implementation status.  Another example: the new lease accounting will require SOX-compliant processes to record leases in a timely fashion, abstract them accurately, and (if the present proposal holds) make quarterly assumptions about their likely lengths, contingent rents, and service components.  All these processes will have to be integrated with processes of other functions … HR, IT, Finance … intertwining corporate real estate with other key functions and making it integral to how the company works.

Employee Retention and Recruitment.  Despite the fact that unemployment is still stubbornly high, competition for top talent is severe.  As product design, marketing, supply chains, financing, and the art of management, itself, becomes more sophisticated, the winning of the competition for sophisticated talent is becoming more and more important to company success.  If you have the best talent, you can create the best products, the best marketing, the best cost structure, etc. … the things that allow you to easily win the competition for customers.  And what attracts talent?  Money helps, but ultimately, it’s about the work environment.  Here again, corporate real estate execs can play an important role by using their command over the physical work environment to help mold the social work environment that will determine how successful their company is in retaining and recruiting talent.

It is a new year:  “Year of the Rabbit”. 

Will it be a new decade:  “Decade of the Corporate Real Estate Exec”?