New Leasing Proposals Continue to Draw Heat

FASB and the IASB respond to criticism as they prepare a new exposure draft for lease accounting.
Marielle SegarraNovember 1, 2011

The lease accounting debate rages on as the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) pore over nearly 800 public comment letters that question proposed new leasing standards. Board officials hit the conference circuit last month to answer detractors, clarify the exposure drafts they released to the public in August 2010, and talk about adjustments they are making to the original proposals.

Among the topics continuing to grab plenty of attention is the “right-of-use” asset concept, which, if approved, would require companies to capitalize operating leases they could traditionally keep off their balance sheets, such as those for real estate and equipment. The boards are also modifying their treatment of lease-renewal options, short-term leases, and variable lease payments.

Under the original exposure draft, companies would have been required to include in their lease term (and record on the balance sheet) any renewal period they were likely to exercise. Under the new proposal, lessees would account for a renewal period only if they had “significant economic incentive to exercise” that option.

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In a client advisory earlier this year, Ernst & Young said such an economic incentive might include renewal rates priced at a bargain, penalty payments for relocating, or significant installment costs expended. One possible scenario suggested by Bill Bosco, a member of the IASB working group (external subject-matter experts who provide input to the board): a company that invests millions of dollars to renovate a store may be required to account for the renewal period because it would be compelled to recover its costs by extending the lease. This adjustment to the lease term, Bosco says, pushes the standard closer to current generally accepted accounting principles.

The proposed adjustments also remove some of the complexity for companies that hold leases for less than one year; under the draft rules, those short-term leases would still be considered a rent expense and would not be placed on the balance sheet. The new exposure draft also allows companies to keep certain variable lease payments off their balance sheets.

While those moves may placate some of the criticism leveled at the new proposals, one of the most controversial, and central, aspects of the lease-accounting changes has not been modified: abandoning the use of a straight-line average rent expense over a contract’s term in favor of a system requiring companies to front-load their rent expense on the income statement by splitting it into an amortization expense and an interest expense.

This aspect of the standard, Bosco says, does not reflect the reality of most leases. “We’d rather that companies’ lease costs. . .be represented in their financial statements in a way that represents the economic effect of a lease transaction, which we think is a level, monthly lease cost,” he says.

Ultimately, the proposed standard leaves more to interpretation than current rules, says Mindy Berman, managing director at Jones Lang Lasalle, a real-estate services firm. “There are a lot of subjective evaluations and a lot of nuances that will definitely affect companies’ implementation,” she says. Berman believes finance will have to partner more closely with business units to sort through them all.

The IASB and FASB plan to release the revised exposure draft for further public comment at the beginning of 2012, and hope to have a final rule in place by the end of the year.