Friday, July 24, 2009

DP comment letters

The comment period has now closed for the discussion paper, Leases: Preliminary Views, released by the FASB & IASB in March. A flood of comment letters came in close to last Friday's deadline; as of this posting, the comment letters page lists over 200 comment letters received, with a notation that additional letters have yet to be posted.

Letters have been received from almost every conceivable type of party: accounting firms, accounting boards, lessees, lessors, associations of lessees and lessors, accounting academics, and even a few individuals. (FCS's comment letter is available here.) Interestingly, even though a major reason for the proposed revision is to provide better information to users of financial statements (i.e., investors and lenders), I see only a couple of comment letters from such entities, so we have little basis to know whether they feel the changes would help them make better investing decisions. We only have the claims of other interested parties that this or that change would or wouldn't be useful to statement users.

While I haven't had time to read all the comment letters, most of them fall in predictable ways. Accountants generally favor the overall approach, though they may have issues with some of the details. Most lessors and many lessees don't like the elimination of operating leases; many are also concerned about the increased complexity, particularly if reassessment every reporting period is required. (Some comment that lessees made their decisions to lease based on the current rules, and requiring capitalization of existing operating leases messes up their capital structures.) Some lessees are more sanguine about the general approach; JCPenney, for instance, says that it has long been internally managing its capital structure as if real estate operating leases were capitalized, so making that change on the external books is no big deal, and makes a lot of sense to them (though they'd still like to exclude small leases).

Several letters (such as the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration) express concern about the impact on small businesses leasing items like computers and copiers; the impact on their financial statements, the complexity involved in calculating and amortizing present valued obligations, and the hassles of reconciling differing treatment between book and tax accounting were mentioned as issues. A number of letters suggest that small or short-term leases should be excluded to reduce the reporting burden, considering that the impact would generally be immaterial; other letters (particularly from accounting firms) oppose any exclusions, concerned that it opens the door to evasive manuvers.

Overall, it seems like virtually every question has respondents on both sides of the issue, often with very carefully thought-out reasons. Still, it's not hard to see the "whose ox is being gored" aspect of many of the comments: lessors are concerned that if all leases are capital, many companies will buy instead of lease as the off-balance-sheet benefit disappears (even as they claim that that's rarely why lessees take leases); lessees with lots of operating leases are concerned about the effect on their balance sheet of capitalizing those leases; some academics and accountants seem to be pursuing theoretical accuracy with no concern for the practical costs (while others are very aware of their clients' pain).

There are, however, some areas of general agreement. Virtually no one likes the idea of recalculating the obligation to reflect changes in a lessee's incremental borrowing rate, considering that it adds complexity and doesn't reflect a change in the actual economics of the lease. Very few like the idea of revaluing the obligation at fair value, for similar reasons. Recognizing options and contingent rent based on the most likely amount rather than probability weighting is strongly favored (though many don't want to recognize options until actually exercised or reasonably assured, or contingent rent until incurred, both of which are the current rules). Respondents generally agree with treating residual guarantees similarly to contingent rents.

There is a great deal of concern with complexity and cost, particularly the requirement to reassess at each reporting period (especially with regard to contingent rents). Many respondents suggest that contingent rents should only be capitalized if the regular rents are clearly below-market (otherwise, they would be expensed as incurred, as under current rules). Some accountants, though, believe reassessment is desirable to more accurately portray the current state of the leases. Another area of complexity mentioned by a number of American respondents is book/tax differences which would be generated by treating current operating leases as capital (when they would still be operating or "true leases" for tax purposes).

A large number of letters call for lessor lease accounting to be included in the revision, wanting to make sure that lessee and lessor accounting continue to mirror each other, rather than operate under different standards. Some are concerned, though, that the boards may rush their lessor accounting review to stay on the current lessee schedule.

CFO magazine has an article about the comment letters on their website.

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