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Lease Accounting Change Still Coming; Waiting for the Fat Lady to Sing May 15, 2011

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

FASB and IASB are working feverishly to get their new lease accounting standard out.  They’ve admitted that they’ll miss their target date of June 2011 by a few months but claim to be as committed as ever to reform lease accounting.  Their goal: greater disclosure of lease liabilities.

Over the last few months, the accounting boards have met frequently to “re-deliberate” (which is their word) aspects of the new lease accounting they proposed in their Exposure Draft on Leases issued last August.   They’ve been trying to respond to objections raised in the more-than 700 comment letters they received during the comment period that ended December 15, 2010.  Bit by bit, the boards are addressing concerns raised and making tentative modification to their original proposal.  In general, though, the main tenet of the original proposal … that all leases go on balance sheets … remains intact.  In fact, the strategic and process implications of the new accounting are as big as ever.

So, where are we now?  Following is a summary of the accounting proposal as it now sits.   Be aware, though, that this is a digest.  It only covers main points, and it glosses over the many nuances of these points.

Also, remember: “the fat lady hasn’t sung yet”.  The “Re-Deliberation Opera” is still on and there could be more changes, reversals, and reversals of reversals in the offing.

For more information on the implications for real estate strategy and proceses, see my other posts on the new lease accounting here.  In particular check out an earlier post on “Ten Things You Should Know about the New Lease Accounting Standard” but make sure you read below to understand how the capitalization of optional renewal periods and P&L accounting are still being re-deliberated.

All leases will go on balance sheet.   The main thrust of the new accounting is to require lessees to capitalize their leases and put them on balance sheets … as both right-of-use-assets and lease liabilities.  A lease will be capitalized in an amount equal to the present value of its future lease obligations, discounted at the company’s incremental borrowing rate.  There has been little opposition to this idea of putting leases on balance sheets, and it will undoubtedly happen.

Don’t be confused about talk that the accounting boards are considering the possibility of allowing two types of leases: “finance leases” and “other-than-finance leases”.  First, the boards are second-guessing their idea of having two types of leases, and so the concept might not survive.  Second, though, if the concept does survive, know that the reason the boards are considering two types of leases is only to allow two different types of expense recognition for P&L accounting. (See below.) Both types of leases would still go on balance sheet.

More than just minimum rent obligation will go on balance sheet, but we’re not yet sure how much more.  Companies will have to capitalize more than just their minimum rent obligation.  They will also have to capitalize some types of contingent rent and some optional renewal periods.  It looks like contingent rent will have to be included as long as it is based on something other than business conditions. For example, rent escalations tied to CPI would have to be included, but rent that is determined as a percent of revenue, such as for a retailer, would not.  (The latter case, though, changes if the threshold of revenue at which that contingent rent kicks in is so low that the contingent rent is deemed to be “disguised base rent”.)

As for optional renewal periods … one of the most contentious aspects of the proposed accounting … the accounting boards have tentatively changed their original proposal and now propose that an optional renewal period would only be capitalized if there is a “significant economic benefit” to exercising the related option. The boards have not, however, provided any guidance on what would constitute “significance” … and it is unclear if they will … and so it is uncertain at this point how significant this “significance test” will be in reducing the number of optional renewal periods to be capitalized. (It seems to me that most options to renew carry a significant economic benefit in the form of avoidance of relocation costs.)

The original proposal would have required capitalizing the optional renewal period when it was “more likely than not” that the renewal would occur.  It was strongly criticized on three counts: capitalizing renewal periods for which companies are not obligated, requiring difficult-to-make forecasts of whether a lease will be renewed, and requiring complex processes to make those forecasts.  Presumably this ”more likely than not” wording has gone away, but conceptual gaps seem to exist, such as whether or not the likelihood of renewal is to be considered before capitalizing a renewal period associated with an option containing a significant economic benefit.

The boards still have work to do in defining when obligations related to optional renewal periods should be included.  They will almost definitely require some optional renewal periods to be capitalized; otherwise companies would be able to structure short leases with options to renew as a way to avoid capitalizing lease periods that will inevitably occur.

The pattern of expense recognition will be high in early years … for at least some leases … and maybe for all leases.  The straight-line pattern of recognizing lease expenses evenly over the course of the lease … as is done today with operating leases … may no longer exist.  The original accounting proposal was to entirely do away with today’s P&L accounting for leases (which, BTW, is the accounting most companies use for their internal budgeting).   The proposal was to replace rent expense with two new types of expenses: amortization of the right-of-use asset and interest on the lease liability.  The latter would be higher in the early years of a lease and lower in the later years, just as is the case in a self-amortizing loan. The resulting high-then-low expense recognition pattern was criticized in many of the comment letters, and so the boards are considering the possibility of defining two types of leases … “finance leases” and (the presently inelegantly named) “other-than-finance-leases”.  The new expense recognition pattern would apply only to the former; the latter would have a straight-line expense recognition pattern similar to today’s expense recognition pattern for leases.  (Whether it would be categorized as rent expense or as asset amortization and liability interest is unclear.)  Debate continues, though, particularly as it is becoming clear to the boards that defining two types of leases creates definitional problems, might require the types of “bright line” rules that are inconsistent with the boards’ goal of creating a principles-based standard, and would likely increase the complexity of compliance processes.

The new accounting will apply to some contracts you do not now think of as “leases”.  A big issue that has caught a lot of people by surprise is that the new accounting necessarily will apply to implicit leases, i.e. those contracts that may not be thought of as being leases but which convey to the buyer the right to control one of the vendor’s assets and specify exactly which asset is used.  An example is a photocopy contract which might be thought of as a service contract but which … because it conveys control over specified assets … would be deemed to contain a lease.

The issue applies to assets much larger than photocopiers, though.  Think buildings.  An example might be a logistics contractor who manages logistics for a customer out of a warehouse that is used solely for that customer.  Such a contract might be deemed to contain a lease, and the customer would have to put, on its balance sheet, a portion of the projected future payments to be made to the logistics contractor.  See my previous post on this topic.

Initial application of the new standard may be only a year away … long before the “Effective Date”.  The boards have not yet specified when the “Effective Date” of the new accounting standard will be.  When they do, there is likely to be much misunderstanding because the “Effective Date” is a misnomer.  Companies will actually have to begin applying the new standard retrospectively to leases a couple years prior to the effective date.

According to the Exposure Draft on Leases, the Effective Date will apply as follows.   A company will have to apply the new standard to its annual financial statement for any fiscal year that begins after the Effective Date.  This means, for example, if the the Effective Date was designated as December 31, 2014 (which would be three years after the anticipated issuance of the standard by the end of this calendar year)  any fiscal year starting after that date would have to use the new accounting in its annual statement.  Let’s say the company’s fiscal year began on February 1, 2015, the annual statement for the year ending January 31, 2016 would be the first time that the company would report using the new standard.

That sounds like a long time from now, but consider this: the standard will require that the company retrospectively apply the standard to any financial results for prior years that it presents for comparison purposes in its FY2016 annual report.  The typical company presents two years of prior results and so would have to recast its FY2015 and FY2014 statements using the new accounting.  The latter fiscal year begins on February 1, 2013 and so the company would first apply the new standard on that date, even though it won’t report using the new standard until three years later.

Continuing this hypothetical (but very possibly real time table), February 1, 2013 is only a little over a year after issuance of the standard, assuming issuance by the end of Calendar Year 2011.  This leaves little time to put in place the processes to collect the information and make the assumptions (such as for optional renewal periods) needed for this retrospective application. While companies will not absolutely have to have these processes in place before the initial application, if they don’t, they risk losing information that will later be required for this retrospective application forcing them to undertake the time-consuming and costly reconstruction of historical data and the determination, to the satisfaction of their auditors, of what assumptions they would have likely made in early time periods about things like optional renewal periods, contingent rents, etc.  Putting processes in place to capture this information prior to the date on which initial application takes place will be a wise choice.

There will be no grandfathering of existing leases.  Leases that are already in place today, as well as those signed between now and the Effective Date, will go on balance sheet on the Effective Date if they are still active.  Considering this, the standard … even though it is not yet set … is for all practical purposes already in effect.  Companies should already be taking the new accounting … at least those aspects that are not under debate … into account in setting strategy and making decisions.  This is something that few corporate real estate execs truly understand yet.

Standard will probably be issued before end of this calendar year. Once the boards issue the new standard, companies will have to shift into high gear to address the strategic and process implications.  Companies should already be mobilizing to do this.  I suspect many are not.  For their sake, let’s hope the  fat lady sings the finale of the “Re-Deliberation Opera” loud enough for them to hear.


1. Chris H. - May 18, 2011

I have worked in corporate real estate for publically traded and privately held retailers for almost 20 years. I realized early on that many retail and restaurant chains were essentially borrowing money from landlords in order to help finance their expansion plans. In many cases, significantly inflated rents were agreed to because the money that was being “borrowed” from the landlord was not classified as a liability that showed up on the balance sheet. I always thought this was misleading because the real cost of capital for the lease obligation was much higher than what would have otherwise been incurred using conventional financing.

I have personally debated this point multiple times with CFO’s over the years because I realized that the liabilities we were taking on in terms lease agreements frequently dwarfed the liabilities we incurred compared to conventional financing. Working in real estate, I have always understood that leases are a liability we were contractually obligated to pay but, because they are not classified as debt, they did not affect our loan covenants. I’m having a difficult time believing that the potential impact on large publicly traded retail and restaurant chains will not be enormous.

Also, once these liabilities start showing up on the balance sheet, I can’t help but wonder if banks, who themselves have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, will not be forced to start taking this added liability into consideration when they negotiate the loan covenants for financing. Does it seem unreasonable to assume that they might start demanding that restrictions be put on growth in order to protect themselves from this increased liability going forward? After all, how many otherwise successful companies have crashed and burned over the years because they tried to grow too fast? I would argue that in numerous cases, it wasn’t debt in the form of loans that bankrupted them, it was their leasehold obligations.

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