equity, debt and leases: an important balance sheet change in prospect

financial strength

There’s a line of thought in academic finance that argues it doesn’t matter for a publicly traded company’s stock price how much of the capital in the business comes from equity (the owners’ cash) or debt (borrowed funds).

In the real world, that idea couldn’t be much more wrong.  Banks won’t lend to a firm that has too little cash put up by the owners.  They may even make a new equity offering a prerequisite for further loans.

Also, one of the main reasons I’m so fanatical about making a projected cash flow statement is to make sure that a company I’m interested in will have the money to service its debt, pay the dividend and still run the business.  My own rule of thumb, based on experience with a wide variety of companies, is that if a firm has so much debt that if it were to devote all its cash flow to paying back loans but couldn’t do so within three years, it’s potentially in real trouble.

debt vs. leases

Oddly, traditional financial accounting doesn’t consider leases as debt.  Even though leases may be ironclad promises to rent property or equipment for decades at a fixed price, they don’t appear on the balance sheet of the lessee as liabilities.  Lease information is disclosed, but there isn’t as much data as for bank loans or bond offerings.  What there is contained in the footnotes to the financial statements, not on the balance sheet itself.  Or course, every sensible investor should read the footnotes carefully as a matter of course.  But the reality is that even some professional securities analysts don’t.  And only the most expensive data services for screening stocks–out of the financial reach of individuals like you and me–will allow you to include leases when calculating debt/ equity ratios.

capital vs. operating leases

One exception:  at some point before my time on Wall Street began, someone got the bright idea of dressing loans up to look like leases, so they wouldn’t appear on the balance sheet.  The lessee would then appear (to anyone who didn’t read the footnotes) to be in better financial health than it actually was.

To remedy this abuse, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the financial accounting industry watchdog, developed four tests to detect loans in lease clothing.   If the lease:

1.  calls for the leased asset to be turned over to the lessee at the end of the lease term, or

2.  allows the lessee to buy the asset at a bargain price at lease end, or

3.  lasts more than 75% of the useful life of the asset, or

4.  has payments with a total present value of over 90% of the purchase price of the asset,

then the lease is classified as a capital lease and has to appear as a liability on the balance sheet.

Leases that don’t meet any of the four criteria are called operating leases and can remain in the footnote shadows of the financials.

…until now

I haven’t made much of an attempt to find cases where the current way of accounting for leases creates a problem in company analysis.  But…

–most strip mall big box stores are stuck with long-term lease commitments for much more store space than they need.  If they can’t sublease store locations they’d like to close, however, or sublet portions of the locations they want to keep, they’re stuck paying for space they can’t use.  Borders is a case where this was an unusually difficult issue.

–on the other hand, one of the attractions of JCP (though not the most important) to its current hedge fund holders is its bargain-priced leases on retail locations.

new FASB rules…

…now in the process of being formulated would require that all leases that extend for more than a year must be shown on the balance sheet.

why this is important

Two reasons:

1.  The risks to bricks-and-mortar retailers contained in their long-term leases will become much more apparent once the new rules are in place.  Same thing for restaurant chains.  Airlines, too.  Small, fast-growing firms will likely be the worst impacted.

2.  This is a geeky, under-the-radar topic.  It probably won’t get much publicity until late this year.  Lots of time to check the lease footnotes for stock we own to make sure there are no nasty surprises lurking there.

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