Sucking the LIFO Out of Inventory

The government sees billions of dollars in potential tax revenue sitting on the shelves of company warehouses.
Marie LeoneJuly 15, 2010

Explaining accounting to Congress is never easy. But last spring, Bill Jones, vice chairman of O’Neal Industries, says he witnessed a few “aha” moments as he went door-to-door on Capitol Hill to lobby against the elimination of “last-in, first-out” (LIFO) accounting.

As Ron Travis, O’Neal’s vice president of tax, explained to members of Congress why the majority of companies use LIFO, “lightbulbs started going off,” recalls Jones. Until then, he says, “they thought LIFO was just a funny-sounding acronym.”

LIFO allows companies to calculate the cost of goods sold based on the price of the most recently purchased (“last-in”) inventory, rather than inventory that was purchased more cheaply in the past and has been sitting on the shelf. That boosts the cost of goods sold, which lowers profits — and, thus, taxable income. LIFO is particularly important to companies that have slow-moving inventory — such as industrial manufacturers and distributors — and are therefore vulnerable to rising prices. O’Neal, a manufacturer and distributor of metals and metal products, has used LIFO for 63 years, almost as long as the method has been allowed for tax purposes (the Internal Revenue Service first sanctioned it in 1939).

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“We normally replace every piece of inventory we sell with a higher-priced piece of inventory,” explains Travis. “Under LIFO, all of the inflation that is built into our product is not recognized for tax or book purposes.”

Jones and Travis breathed a sigh of relief last year when Congress quietly dropped plans to eliminate LIFO. But it didn’t take long before the funny-sounding acronym was back in the taxman’s sights. The 2011 federal budget proposed by the Obama Administration again includes a provision to repeal LIFO accounting. The government estimates that the move would boost federal coffers by $59 billion over 10 years.

Even if LIFO somehow survives another year of federal budgeting, it still faces the long-term threat of being wiped out if the United States adopts international financial reporting standards (IFRS), which do not allow LIFO. That would stop companies from using LIFO entirely, because companies that use the method to reduce taxable income reported to the IRS must also use it for financial reporting, rather than potentially more-flattering methods, such as FIFO (first-in, first-out) or average cost.

Repeal of LIFO accounting will hit old-line businesses the hardest.

A Bad Match?

Companies like LIFO because it stifles inflationary effects by matching current expenses and current sales more closely than other methods. The accounting convention “protects us from having to pay taxes on what are not really profits,” contends Jones. Indeed, proponents of LIFO — 120 of which have formed the LIFO Coalition to lobby against its repeal — don’t consider the methodology a tax break. “There is an economic reason for using LIFO, and that is lost on the folks in Washington,” says Beatty D’Alessandro, CFO of Graybar, a distributor of electrical and industrial components that has been using LIFO since the early 1980s. Without LIFO, he says, there is a “mismatch between what it’s going to cost us to put inventory back on the shelf and what we bought it for six months ago, when it may have cost less.”

To understand the mismatch, consider how LIFO works: Say, for example, that a company has an industrial compressor in its inventory that it bought for $5,000. It sells the compressor for $5,500, and replaces it in inventory for $5,200. From an economic perspective, the profit is only $300, not the $500 difference between the historic and current price. LIFO allows companies to use that “last-in” price to record $300 in taxable income. The remaining $200 in income is deferred until the company shutters its business and is forced to liquidate the inventory, at which time it strips off years of “LIFO layers.” The $200 — the difference between the taxable income recorded under LIFO and another methodology — is referred to as the LIFO reserve.

In a liquidation, notes O’Neal’s Travis, the sell-off of old inventory generates revenue to pay the taxes. But if LIFO is simply repealed, he says, then deferred taxes will be due without the benefit of any additional revenue. “In effect, the repeal of LIFO is going after our equity,” the tax director says.

Under the Obama budget proposal plan, companies would be required to “true up” their retained earnings in the year they stop using LIFO, explains Jason Cuomo, a senior analyst with Moody’s Investors Service. They would then make annual cash tax payments on the profits stored in the LIFO reserve over a 10-year period, beginning in 2012.

Graybar’s D’Alessandro argues that LIFO accounting is a “timing issue,” rather than a tax gimmick, and emphasizes that LIFO accounting reverses itself when demand drops. “You burn through LIFO layers as you burn through your inventory,” explains D’Alessandro, who notes that Graybar reached lower-cost inventory layers last year as demand slowed. At that point, profits rose under LIFO accounting and the company had to pay more in taxes. The same is true when deflation sets in, says Scott Rabinowitz, a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’s national tax practice. As the price of replacement inventory drops, taxable income increases, and so does a company’s tax obligation.

A Cash-Flow Issue

Not all companies agree with the mismatch theory. Proponents of FIFO, who tend to be retailers and manufacturers of fast-moving inventory such as electronics or perishable goods, say FIFO better reflects the current value of inventories. For example, in December, packaging giant Pactiv Corp. switched from LIFO to FIFO, telling investors that the change provides “better matching of sales and expenses.” Officials at the company, which makes Hefty brand plastic bags, noted that this is particularly true during periods when the price of their primary raw material, resin, is volatile.

Under FIFO, they said, “the lag between resin-price changes and selling-price changes will be reduced by approximately two months.”

Moreover, not everyone agrees that LIFO elimination would be such a dire event for companies with slower-moving inventory. The elimination of LIFO “is a cash-flow issue,” argues Moody’s Cuomo, who co-authored a recent report on the subject. His report, which examined 176 companies rated by Moody’s that use LIFO, points out that larger companies with strong cash flows likely will weather the one-time charge of converting from LIFO to FIFO or another methodology without much problem (see the chart at the end of this article). That’s because for the largest companies, the charge represents a small percentage of their annual cash flow. However, smaller companies with high LIFO reserves and low cash flows could run into problems.

But some large companies say the change would still hurt. Graybar, with $4.3 billion in revenue, reported a LIFO reserve of $107 million in its most recent 10-K. Assuming a 35% tax rate, and a single payment that is not stretched out over time, D’Alessandro estimates that Graybar’s tax bill would amount to $37.5 million on the day it converted from LIFO to FIFO — or a $19 million tax obligation if the company switched to average-cost accounting. More important, a switch from LIFO could mean up to 500 fewer jobs, says the CFO, who figures that, on average, salary and benefits cost the company $70,000 per person. “If we pay it in taxes, we can’t pay it in wages. It is as simple as that. [LIFO repeal] is an anti-employment move,” insists D’Alessandro.

The demise of LIFO also could affect a company’s net operating losses — the deferred tax asset that is recorded by a company and held to offset taxable income in the future. Rabinowitz notes that taking the LIFO reserve into income could reduce the amount of NOL carryforwards.

The sting of LIFO repeal also will be felt by smaller companies that don’t have robust information-technology systems, says Stephanie Anderson, a managing director at consultancy AlixPartners. That’s because sorting and valuing layer after layer of LIFO inventory is a complex task. That kind of “unwinding” is mandatory before an accurate valuation can be recorded for book and tax purposes. Anderson says companies may also need to hire more cost accountants to ferret through the inventory layers.

Is the End Near?

The brightest hope for LIFO proponents is the possibility that the accounting method could yet survive. It is too early yet to tell how strong industry pushback will be on the Administration’s proposed repeal, but lobbying efforts have stopped it before. Similarly, if the Securities and Exchange Commission does make IFRS the accounting system of the land, nonpublic companies won’t have to use the standards. Indeed, if the IRS itself isn’t the force behind a LIFO prohibition, it might even prove willing, as it has in the past, to water down conformity regulations requiring that certain methods be used consistently for both tax and financial reporting.

Perhaps the biggest wild card affecting the government’s decision will be the economy. “It’s always a terrible time to look at repealing LIFO,” says Jones, “but right now it’s just another nail in many corporate coffins.”

Marie Leone is senior editor for accounting at CFO.

Businesses with strong cash flows may be minimally affected by moving off of LIFO.