Monday, January 31, 2011

EZ13 data entry tips #1

One of my intentions for this blog has been to provide usage notes for EZ13, FCS's lease accounting software for capital and operating leases, but I’ve ended up generally more focused on what’s happening with the FASB & IASB as they revised the lease accounting standard, because so much has been happening in that regard. Today, though, I’m going to take a moment to offer some tips on using EZ13.

There are a number of features designed to make entry of leases faster and more convenient, but many of them aren’t necessarily obvious. (They're described in the documentation, but I harbor no illusions about how much documentation is read.) I’m going to go through a few of these today:

Copy a lease

You may have several leases that are the same or almost the same (several copiers leased at the same time, for instance). EZ13 allows you to copy all the data entered for a lease to create a new lease record. Use menu item Lease/Copy; all the information from the current lease is copied to the new record, except only for the lease number (since that must be unique).

Rent Escalation clauses

Many real estate leases call for an automatic increase of rent every year or every 5 years. The increase might be a percentage or a dollar amount. (Note that if the increase is based on future events, such as the change in the Consumer Price Index, that’s considered contingent rent, and only the base rent is considered minimum lease payments for FAS 13 reporting purposes; the contingent rent is simply expensed when incurred.) Rather than needing to calculate and enter each rent amount, EZ13 allows you to specify the base rent, the increment (in dollars or percent), and when the change happens. You can separately specify the executory cost, which might remain the same or change with a different increment. Use menu item Lease/Rent Escalation. Note that the rent escalation period does not have to cover the entire life of the lease.

Level Principal Rent

Relatedly, some leases are set up so that the same amount of principal is repaid with each lease payment. Since the interest is constantly decreasing as the principal decreases, this means that each rent payment is different. Entering that for a 36- or 60-month lease can be pretty tedious! EZ13 can set up the full set of payments using menu item Lease/Level Principal Rent, you just enter the initial principal, interest rate, and length of the lease (with an option for additional fixed rent, such as a service charge that's added to each payment, and executory costs).

I’ll describe some additional input convenience features tomorrow.

Friday, January 28, 2011

First redeliberation session

The IASB & FASB met in joint session last week. On the agenda, as previously noted, was the first round of reconsideration of the new lease accounting standard, reacting to the responses received on the Exposure Draft.

The separation of leases from service contracts is a major issue, including the question of service contracts that include physical assets. One example is a cable TV subscription; if the cable company gives you a cable box, does that make the whole transaction a lease rather than a service? Does the box need to be accounted for separately as a lease? Or should some small amount of physical assets be ignored in this situation? (How small?)

The boards also discussed whether all leases should be considered a form of financing (which merits the accounting proposed with delinked asset and obligation), or if some aren't really financing and should be recognized with a straight-line expense/income pattern.

Lessor accounting was also discussed in detail. Some respondents suggested putting off lessor accounting, but the boards agreed to keep discussing both sides of the transaction, particularly issues that are relevant to both. There is a wide range of views on whether there ought to be one or two kinds of lessor accounting, and if one, which one, though the boards seem to have considerable sympathy for the idea that there are two different business models for leasing that ought to be accommodated.

A number of respondents complained about the lack of symmetry between lessee and lessor accounting (sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander?); the boards directed the staffs to consider two approaches to accounting for both lessors and lessees, one based on the financing concept and the other using straight-line recognition. (One challenge, of course, will be how to differentiate.)

FASB Chairman Leslie Seidman held a webinar on Jan. 25, providing her views on what the board is doing. She noted that the count of comment letters on the lease accounting Exposure Draft is now over 750. She sees general agreement with the concept of placing lease obligations on the lessee balance sheet, but recognizes that many are concerned about the complexity of the current model, especially with regard to options and contingent rents. She also noted that there is "general disagreement" with the front-loaded expense pattern as it affects leases that are currently considered operating, and the classification of the expense in financing rather than operating activities. While she didn't officially back off from a June 30 due date for this and the other current projects, she noted that the boards have been stating that the target dates are subject to the nature and extent of the feedback received. Their goal is standards that are understandable and implementable at a reasonable cost, and "if it takes a little longer to reach that comfort level, we will take that time."

In the webinar's Q&A period, someone asked how the FASB decides when to re-expose a standard if changes are made from the exposure draft. She said their general question is: How significant are the changes from both the original exposure draft and from current accounting? The implication is that if their new plan is significantly different from both an ED and current GAAP, they would re-expose. It is, of course, too soon to tell whether that would happen to the lease accounting standard.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Redeliberations starting, comment letter summary

The FASB & IASB will have a joint meeting in London on Wednesday, January 19, when they will begin to discuss comments received on the Exposure Draft, and their plan for redeliberations. On Wednesday and Thursday, they will discuss 1) distinguishing leases from services, and 2) lessor accounting. They are not planning to make decisions on those topics.

The IASB meeting page for January has agenda papers for the leases discussions. These include a list of the major issues that the staffs feel should be thoroughly reconsidered, and a secondary list of additional possible issues for reconsideration. Five major issues are noted:

1) Definition of a lease (particularly differentiating from service/executory contracts)
2) Lessor accounting model
3) Lease term (i.e., when to include renewal options)
4) Variable lease payments (i.e., contingent rentals)
5) Profit & loss recognition pattern (whether asset amortization should be adjusted so that overall expense/income for leases is straight-line rather than front-loaded)

A laundry list of other items is listed as potentially needing reconsideration, including scope exclusions, short-term leases, foreign exchange, disclosure, fully retrospective application, lease incentives, and leasehold improvements, among numerous others.

The staffs' comment letter summary notes the "very high" number of responses (760 letters as of Jan. 12), and the fact that the boards have had contacts with several thousand people through various outreach activities. They note that very few financial statement users sent in comment letters, but outreach events included over 500 users.

The summary indicates that almost all comment letter writers disagreed with defining the lease term as the longest possible term more likely than not to occur. Respondents generally suggested either the current standard of including options that are "reasonably assured/reasonably certain" (current US GAAP/IFRS terminology), or "virtually certain" (seen as an even higher threshold), or the Alternative View listed in the IFRS Exposure Draft, to include options only when there are incentives to exercise those options.

The summary indicates likewise almost total disagreement with the contingent rent proposal. Alternative approaches suggested included 1) capitalizing only contingent rents based on an index or rate, 2) including only those that are outside an entity's control, or 3) using a different estimation approach (such as "best estimate" rather than "expected value" with multiple scenarios).

The summary is 70 pages long, so trying to fully recap it here would be tedious. Suffice to say that every question that the boards asked in the ED received lots of comment, with numerous alternatives presented.

Over half of the respondents were preparers of financial statements, with sizable numbers of industry organizations, individuals, and professional organizations. Half came from North America, a bit more than a quarter from Europe. The largest industries represented were financial services (almost 1/4), retail, real estate, and transportation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Volume of comment letters

How does the volume of comment letters on the proposed lease accounting standard compare to other recent exposure drafts? The following list may be of interest:

Leases: 746 (and counting)
Fair value measurement: 95
Comprehensive Income: 72
Accounting for Financial Instruments: 2814
Derivative Instruments and Hedging Activities: 127
Amortised Cost and Impairment: 179
Revenue Recognition: 971
Troubled Debt Restructuring: 117

So leases isn't the biggest, but it's up there.

"It's not a done deal."

That was the statement of Larry Smith, FASB board member, at last Thursday's (Jan. 6) afternoon roundtable discussion on the proposed new lease accounting standard. He was responding to one participant's comment that people in the leasing industry he's talked to thought there was no point in submitting a comment letter or otherwise participating in the boards' outreach activities, because they thought the standard was "a done deal" and the process was just for show. Smith was emphatic in denying that. New FASB Chairman Leslie Seidman concurred, adding, "I've already decided that I will change my position on one or two matters," and suggesting that she may make further changes based on additional review of the comment letters and discussion with interested parties.

The count of comment letters is now up to 746 (including letters received after the deadline, which are still being posted to the FASB website). I can't possibly read them all (I need to do my real job), but members of the FASB and IASB staff are. I spoke to one of the FASB staff who is personally reading every single comment letter on lease accounting, and commented that the letters are substantive (and lengthy); they're impressed by the thoughtful responses presented. I'm sure it'll be a few more weeks before they have compiled a summary for the boards, and the boards can begin redeliberations.

I attended the Thursday afternoon roundtable as an invited participant. Other participants included representatives of KPMG and Ernst & Young, lessors Xerox and International Lease Finance (one of the largest aviation lessors in the world), the CFA Institute (financial analyst, and thus a user of financial statements), Toys R Us, Transocean (the world's largest drilling rig operator, unfortunately now infamous as the driller of the BP well that blew up last year), and consultants to the leasing industry. Also present were all five members of the FASB board, as well as two IASB members and several staff members from both boards.

We had four planned topics of discussion: the definition of a lease, the lessor accounting model, the lease term, and variable lease payments (i.e., contingent rents). Most of the discussion of the definition of a lease centered on the distinction from service contracts. It was noted that the line is sometimes fuzzy even today, but because operating leases and service contracts are accounted for relatively similarly, differentiating them isn't a significant issue. With capitalization of leases, the difference becomes much more significant. Transocean is concerned that they may be seen as lessors, which they haven't been up to now, for contracts which include use of a drilling rig, but provide full crew and other services. Airlines similarly may lease aircraft with crew & maintenance included (a "wet lease") or just the aircraft alone ("dry lease"). Aviation lessees and lessors are concerned that fully capitalizing a wet lease will reduce comparability. No consensus was reached about how or whether to divide services and leases.

We also briefly discussed whether the scope exclusion for "in-substance purchases" should be maintained, with some feeling it was a leftover in the proposal: it was set up when the boards were planning to provide only a performance obligation approach to lessor accounting, and lessors wanted a way to recognize up-front profit if they were effectively selling an asset. With the inclusion of the derecognition model, there seems to be less reason to have a separate methodology for in-substance purchases.

For the lessor accounting model, some prefer performance obligation, some prefer derecognition, and some see a place for both. But a number of participants essentially felt, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." They don't see significant problems with current lessor accounting, and suggested essentially keeping it in place, with removal of FAS 13's "bright lines" differentiating capital and operating leases (i.e., using IAS 17 terminology of "the lease term is for the major part of the economic life" and "the present value of the minimum lease payments amounts to at least substantially all of the fair value of the leased asset"). The boards seemed to be willing to seriously consider that. Some participants noted that it was important to make this a long-term rather than interim decision (i.e., don't just tweak it until they can revisit it in a few years; if a change is required, do it now).

We spent long enough on these topics that our discussion leader (the FASB staff project manager for leases) decided to combine the issues of the lease term and variable payments, feeling they were in many respects similar. I agreed; in both cases, the boards are calling for capitalization of amounts that don't meet their own definition of a liability. We discussed the operational difficulty of making and updating the estimates for portfolios of thousands of leases. One FASB board member brought up a suggestion, apparently received in another venue, of doing the estimates on a whole portfolio basis rather than lease by lease. Roundtable participants felt that would not be workable, since in many cases there is wide variation in types of leases or characteristics of leases (real estate leases in particular are rarely cookie-cutter). The accountants also felt that such estimates would not be auditable.

The financial analyst expressed interest in an "expected value" approach, but other participants were extremely negative about booking, for instance, fractional lease terms (like a 7.2 year lease for a 5-year lease with several yearly renewal options). I argued that there is a qualitative difference between a 15-year lease and a 1-year lease with 14 yearly renewal options, since the lessee has the flexibility to walk away with no penalty. The current proposal makes those look identical if the renewals are judged "more likely than not," which penalizes the lessee and understates the lessor's risk of nonrenewal (and a nonrenewal would inevitably result in a substantial hit to the lessor's income statement, meaning potential for substantial earnings volatility). Options aren't "structuring;" they provide choices.

For contingent rents, a best estimate was seen as more tolerable than the current "reasonable number of estimates" (what's a reasonable number? does the norm vary from country to country?), though still all the participants in the room other than the analyst were opposed to capitalizing most contingent rents as well as the "more likely than not" threshold for including renewal options in the lease term. People were also opposed to using forward rates to estimate contingent rents that are based on an index or rate, considering it needlessly complex (do you use a different estimated rate for each monthly payment out five years or more?).

The three hours went quickly. Larry Smith of the FASB commented at the end, "We will take time." While the boards' goal has been to complete the project by June 2011, he said that has always been subject to the extent and nature of comment letters and other outreach responses, and they will extend the schedule if needed to properly respond. Their goal is a "comprehensive, converged, improved, and able to be implemented standard."

I definitely felt the board members were listening with open minds. It remains to be seen how they will balance the various perceived needs, and the varying purposes of leasing. One of the fundamental issues they're dealing with is that sometimes leasing is equivalent to purchasing an asset (a computer lease is perhaps the best example, given the short economic life of a computer), while at other times it's closer to provision of a service (a copier lease with low fixed charges and a per-page price). A methodology that provides comparability to one form doesn't work well for the other. But there are so many gradations between that it's hard to define a principle, any more than a bright line, that differentiates them.

Many people are concerned that whatever change the boards make will mess up their current business operations. Yet doing nothing means that true liabilities of a company are largely hidden (as the financial analyst put it, "Disclosure is not enough"). I don't think the boards will back down from requiring lessees to capitalize virtually all leases. But the rest of the standard is certainly in question, and the deliberations this spring are likely to be lengthy and contentious. Stay tuned!