New Lease Accounting Standards Require Advance Planning and Preparation by Whitney K. Schiffer, CPA
Businesses across all industries are facing a serious time crunch to come onto compliance with two new accounting standards that will materially affect the financial metrics and performance they report in the future. While most private companies have focused the majority of their efforts on meeting the more time-sensitive deadline of Dec. 15, 2018, to apply the new revenue recognition standards, many are woefully unprepared to tackle the equally complex and time-consuming lease accounting requirements that go into effect one year later.
The new lease accounting standard requires businesses to identify and record for the first time on their balance sheets all operating lease agreements, including assets, liabilities and expenses with terms greater than 12 months. In addition to recording a right-of-use asset and the corresponding lease liability on their balance sheets at the present value of the lease payments, business will also need to record amortization of the right-of-use asset on their income statements, generally on a straight-line basis over the lease term.
From an organizational perspective, identifying qualifying leases necessitates commitments of time, careful planning and collaboration across many business units beyond the finance and/or accounting functions. For example, it is not sufficient for businesses to merely look back at last year’s financial statements and convert leases previously included in notes as line items on their balance sheets going forward. Instead, identifying leases will internal executives and external advisors who oversee real estate, transportation, equipment procurement, legal contracts and IT across multiple offices to physically comb through all of the existing contracts and purchase orders in their physical and digital file cabinets to determine if they involve lease arrangements. Under certain circumstances, the existence of a lease may be not be easily identifiable. For example, service contracts for IT software and systems commonly include embedded leases, which businesses may easily overlook and fail to include on their balance sheets.
After a business locates every single one of their qualifying leases, they must inventory those arrangements with exacting detail, perhaps on a spreadsheet or entering them into any of the new lease accounting software programs that store and automate the future reporting requirements for those and other leases. At that point, the business must analyze each contract and extract from each individual lease arrangement all relevant data, including lease payments, variable lease payments, debt obligations and lease renewal options, which must move onto the balance sheet. This can be a challenge considering that not all employees tasked with uncovering leases will have the skillset required to cull needed information from those contracts, nor will every employee understand the potential risks or rewards of those arrangements.
For businesses with significant portfolios of leased assets, transitioning to the new lease standard may negate and eliminate the use of many of the tax-planning strategies they relied on in the past to keep leases off their balance sheets. Additionally, businesses with a high-dollar value of lease obligations must be mindful that the new accounting standard may result in substantial changes to the net income, cash flow, return on assets and other metrics that they report and that they and their stakeholders rely on to make important business decisions. To minimize the impact of these balance sheet changes, businesses must begin planning immediately and carefully to identify with as much accuracy as possible the amount they expect to record as lease assets in the future. This will give businesses ample time to prepare for the changes, communicate them with stakeholders and seamlessly implement new strategies to mitigate any potentially damaging effects on their future operational and financial performance.
A final warning to businesses preparing for the new lease accounting standards is the need to establish appropriate systems, policies and controls for monitoring existing leases, flagging new lease arrangements and recognizing them on their balance sheets in the future. This may require an investment in new technology, the hiring of new employees and/or the engagement of outside advisors who are qualified to manage these responsibilities.
There is no doubt that the lease accounting standards will add new complexities to a broad range of business functions, including sales, lending, contracting and financial reporting. However, under the new rules, businesses will be able to centralize the inventory and management of all lease arrangements and gain a clearer view of whether those assets are improving business performance.
Coming into compliance with the new lease standards by the deadline date may seem overwhelming, especially in light of the multitude of pressures businesses face complying with other new reporting standards, the new tax laws and the day-to-day demands of running a profitable operation. However, there is little time left for procrastination. Business should allocate needed resources now to get started on implementing a scalable lease accounting compliance program that is sustainable over the long term. One way that businesses can ease their compliance burdens is to meet with their accountants and auditors, who can develop and implement strategies that may ultimately improve financial performance.
About the Author: Whitney K. Schiffer, CPA, is a director of Audit and Attest Services with Berkowitz Pollack Brant, where she works with hospitals, health care providers, HMOs, third-party administrators and real estate businesses. She can be reached at the CPA firm’s Miami office at (305) 379-7000 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.