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Regulation Best Practice

Classification and Treatment of Leases

by Roger Lister

Table of contents

Executive Summary

  • Accounting bodies, both international and national, require leases to be classified in terms of economic substance rather than legal form.

  • Current regulation distinguishes a finance lease from an operating lease. If a lease transfers the risks and rewards of an asset to the lessee, it is a finance lease. Otherwise, the lease is an operating lease. A finance lease appears in the balance sheet; an operating lease may remain off the balance sheet.

  • New international and national accounting standards will almost certainly remove the distinction. Except for very short leases, all will go on the balance sheet.

  • The change will eliminate a sometimes artificial distinction, but higher reported leverage may have ill effects. Management may avoid otherwise desirable leasing to protect the leverage ratio. Bond covenants may be breached and need to be renegotiated. There may be an incentive to circumvent the standard by taking out a succession of short but renewable leases.

  • Tax allowances emphasize legal form, but tax in its detail tends to follow accounting standards. Companies will therefore need to consider the tax impact of the new standard as it solidifies.

  • Anti-avoidance tax legislation proliferates daily and will probably increase as governments seek every opportunity to raise revenue in straitened times. At worst, a measure will be retrospective. Planners should monitor discussion and attempt the difficult task of identifying and anticipating the most likely changes, including anti-avoidance legislation.


Lease accounting is nearer than ever to its goal of reporting substance rather than form. International regulators and their national counterparts agree that right-to-use rather than legal title should determine the classification and treatment of leases. The choice is essentially between disclosing a lease as a financial instrument on the balance sheet or as an operating lease on the income statement.

Financial reporting of leases is addressed in the International Accounting Standards Board’s International Accounting Standard IAS 17. The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) benefits from the participation of many countries, including the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).

Why lease? Management needs to test conventional answers carefully since some have limited relevance, while others are frankly contestable. Leasing is sometimes promoted for its small initial outlay, even as 100% financing. This ignores the fact that a rational lessor like a lender will seek a cushion of equity to protect the finance provided. A more rational answer is that leasing is advantageous if it provides more finance than the borrowing which it displaces. Management is essentially asking how far, for their company, is leasing a substitute for borrowing and how far a complement. Research suggests that leasing tends to be a substitute for borrowing for larger firms and a valuable complement to borrowing for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Leasing can help to overcome SMEs’ difficulty in conveying their quality to would-be financiers.


Currently, the essential distinction is between the finance and the operating lease, but it is virtually certain that under the revised international financial reporting standard due about 2011 this distinction will disappear. The new classification will equate finance and operating leases. All but the shortest contracts will be treated like finance leases. New national standards will probably anticipate, accompany, or follow the new international standard.

A finance lease transfers substantially all the risks and rewards of asset ownership to the lessee and features accordingly in the balance sheet. An operating lease remains off balance sheet. If a lease satisfies any one or more of certain criteria, then it may be a finance lease. These are:

  • Ownership of the asset is transferred to the lessee at the end of the lease term;

  • The lease contains a bargain purchase option to buy the equipment at less than fair market value;

  • The lease term is for the major part of the economic life of the asset even if title is not transferred;

  • At the inception of the lease, the present value of the minimum lease payments amounts at least substantially to all of the fair value of the leased asset;

  • The leased assets are of a specialized nature such that only the lessee can use them without major modification;

  • Any cancellation losses are borne by the lessee;

  • The lessee takes gains and losses on the asset’s residual value;

  • The lessee can rent for a secondary period for less than the market rent.

The international standard, unlike some national standards, does not focus on a numerical percentage of fair asset value (typically 90%).

“Asset” means the lower of the fair value and the present value of the minimum lease payments (MLP). MLP are discounted at the interest rate implicit in the lease if practicable, or else at the enterprise’s incremental borrowing rate. Depreciation has to be consistent with that for similar owned assets. If ultimate ownership is unlikely, the asset has to be depreciated over the shorter of the lease term and the life of the asset. The income statement includes depreciation and the finance charge. Rental payments are recognized as part finance charge and part repayment of the liability to the lessor. Repayments of the obligation reduce the liability in the balance sheet.

In the case of operating leases, periodic rentals are charged in total against income on a straight-line basis, unless another systematic basis is more representative of the time pattern of the user’s benefit. Any outstanding rentals are reported in the balance sheet, distinguishing maturities and categories of activity.

IAS 17 is further explained in SIC 15, SIC 27 and IFRIC 4 and 12. SIC 15 states that any incentives such as rent-free periods or contributions by the lessor to the lessee’s relocation costs should be reported as a reduction of lease income or lease expense. IFRIC (a standard issued post 2001) 4 and 12 consider cases where a right to use, while not a lease in form, may amount to a lease for financial reporting purposes. Examples are outsourcing arrangements, telecommunication contracts that provide rights to capacity, and take-or-pay and similar contracts in which purchasers must make specified payments regardless of whether they take delivery of the contracted products or services.

Current classification and treatment of leasing has already brought financial reporting closer to economic reality, and the new standard will continue this progress. It will break down deceptive barriers between economically similar transactions. However, management needs to recognize potentially perverse effects. Reported leverage will increase if finance and operating leases are both on the balance sheet, possibly causing management to avoid otherwise beneficial leases. Bond covenants may be nominally breached and have to be renegotiated. Without suitable safeguards, companies may circumvent the standard by taking out short but renewable leases that will in practice span an asset’s useful life.

In the case of leveraged leasing (not under discussion here), the lessee gains access to the lessor’s leveraged capital. The lessor owns the asset but typically provides only some 25% of capital while garnering any tax allowance in full. Institutional lenders provide the balance of the purchase price to the lessor on a non-recourse basis.

An extract from Christian Dior’s 2007 accounts illustrates how lease classification appears in practice:“In addition to leasing its stores, the Group also finances some of its equipment through long term operating leases. Some fixed assets and equipment were also purchased or refinanced under finance leases.”

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Further reading


  • Epstein, Barry J., Ralph Nach, and Steven M. Bragg. GAAP 2009. 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
  • International Accounting Standards Board. International Financial Reporting Standards IFRS 2008: Including International Accounting Standards (IASs) and Interpretations as approved at 1 January 2008. London: IASB, 2008.


  • Beattie, V., A. Goodacre, and S. J. Thomson. “International lease-accounting reform and economic consequences: The views of U.K. users and preparers.” International Journal of Accounting 41:1 (2006): 75–103.
  • Frecka, T. J. “Ethical issues in financial reporting: Is intentional structuring of lease contracts to avoid capitalization unethical?” Journal of Business Ethics 80:1 (2008): 45–59.
  • Henry, E., O. J. Holzmann, and Y. Yang. “Tracking the lease accounting project.” Journal of Corporate Accounting and Finance 19:1 (2007): 73–6.


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