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Could Proposed On-Balance Sheet Lease Accounting Rules Throw CRE Investors Off Balance?

Under Latest Proposal, Analyst Thinks Some Long-Term Leases May Effectively Exploit Loopholes to Remain Off the Books
August 14, 2013
Even as new accounting rules propose to bring property and equipment leases onto company balance sheets, the new rules will leave certain other financial obligations, namely service contracts and leases with terms of 12 months or less, as off-balance sheet items, according to a report from Fitch Ratings.

In some cases, Fitch reports, extension options and variable lease payments may also be excluded from being capitalized as a lease liability under the new proposed accounting rules.

While the proposed rules are intended to more accurately reflect the economic substance of leases, the value of the rules hinges on whether they are successful in increasing - or at least not further obscuring -- financial transparency for investors and analysts, said Fitch analysts John Boulton, Alex Griffiths and Frederic Gits.

With the Sept 13 deadline fast approaching for public comments on the new proposal, CRE groups and other stakeholders are weighing in, and in some cases doing battle in the court of public opinion, over what they believe will be the dramatic effects the new accounting rules will have on landlords, tenants and the broader CRE market.

While almost all parties agree that it is vital for companies to divulge information about cash payments and the nature of leased assets in ways that allow investors to make judgments in asset financing decisions, how best to do so remains a point of disagreement.

Corporations often adjust their balance sheets in an attempt to reflect a fair estimation of implied debt from leases, however, critics claim that these adjustments are inconsistent, and frequently understate the lease obligations.

Companies implementing the proposed standard will face a heavy administrative burden since they will have to collect and input a substantial amount of data and perform complex calculations to determine the amount to be capitalized. Most companies have not developed a corporate strategy to address the issue or have been slow to start their transition plans, according to a recent white paper by Boston-based tenant representation firm Cresa.

"The bottom line is the need for transparency, and the biggest hurdle is how companies will maintain comprehensive, comparative and valid information in order to perform this analysis," said Michael Hetchkop, senior vice president of lease auditing at Cresa Washington D.C. "It’s going to be more of a challenge for companies to make sure the information they have is complete."

Reaching a solution has proved difficult for accounting standard setters, who are faced with conflicting and sometimes contradictory definitions of what exactly constitutes a lease, defining the lease term, and measuring payments, the Fitch report said.

"Add political sensitivity due to the size of the lease market and you have a potent mix. It is no surprise that progress towards a solution has been slow," Fitch said.

Cresa's Hetchkop agreed.

"This has been a gut wrenching process since it started four years ago, with 800 comment letters [for the previous exposure draft], then going back to square one. And now, another comment period, and who knows what will happen at the end?"

A recent letter to the FASB and IASB from a diverse group of more than 30 trade organizations, including the Roundtable, International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), CCIM, American Trucking Association and Equipment Leasing and Finance Association expressed their displeasure with the latest proposed leasing standard.

“In its current state, it is our opinion that the proposed leasing standard may result in substantial costs to businesses, lack any benefits for investors … will increase complexity, drive economic activity rather than reflect it and will create adverse unintended consequences and pressures upon financial reporting systems. Further, the proposed leasing standard will not result in more decision-useful information compared to that currently available. If our concerns cannot be addressed, then it is our belief that the proposed leasing standard should not be finalized.”

FASB/IASB will begin a month-long series of public roundtable discussions on four continents on Sept 10, starting in São Paulo, Brazil. After weighing the feedback, a final standard is now expected to be issued in early 2014.

The new standards would be effective no earlier than annual reporting periods beginning on January 2017, but would include a two-year look back provision.

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