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Operating Leases Now in the Balance Sheet – GAAP Accounting Made Simple

Operating lease accounting in general can be confusing when you have to sift through multiple financial statements to quantify its impact. The latest FASB (ASU 2016-02) rule has now made operating leases more transparent and required its inclusion in the balance sheet.

This post will:

  1. Show examples of operating leases on the balance sheet
  2. Give a nice shortcut for finding operating lease expenses by year, rather than lump sum
  3. Warn about how operating lease accounting can now completely distort ROA

But first, some background on operating leases and its new accounting standards for companies post-2018.

Financial Lease vs Operating Lease Accounting

There’s a difference between financial lease accounting and operating lease accounting, though the new FASB (ASU 2016-02) rule established in 2018 has made them more similar.

A simple way to remember operating vs financial leases is that a financial lease includes payments that eventually lead to an asset—think of it like a mortgage. An operating lease includes lease payments also but doesn’t lead to an asset at its termination, like renting an apartment.

Now, both types of lease expenses eventually find their way to a company’s income statement. And now with the new 2018 FASB change, you’ll see both in the balance sheet as well.

This has HUGE implications for stocks in the retail industry, particularly (obviously) if they rent most of their stores rather than own them.

Balance Sheet Example: Operating Leases

Remember that in basic accounting, assets and liabilities must reconcile. As an example, if a company takes out debt, they get the cash from the debt as an asset, and the new debt as a liability.

For leases, whether financial or operating, the assets and liabilities also reconcile.

Because the company isn’t paying these expenses for nothing, they get benefit from them and record them as assets on the balance sheet (operating lease right-of-use assets). The liabilities that they owe over the life of the lease is also recorded (operating lease liabilities). These figures must reconcile.

In the case I will show here, the company has recorded a line item as “operating lease right-of-use assets, and has split the liabilities into 2 line items: “Current portion of operating lease liabilities” and “non-current operating lease liabilities”.

Click to zoom

Disclosure: The company displayed is $AEO, which the author owns shares in as of the time of writing this article.

While the right of use (ROU) assets and total operating lease liabilities don’t exactly equal here, notes from the 10-k disclose that an impairment was taken on some of the ROU assets due to impairment on some store assets. You can see the figures are very close, however.

Note that these operating leases make up 42.6% and 76.9% of the company’s total assets and total liabilities, respectively. This is expected for a retail company like $AEO (especially one based on very expensive mall traffic), which reports in their 10-k that:

“We ended Fiscal 2019 with 1,312 stores, consisting of 1,095 Company-owned stores and 217 licensed store locations… Our Company-owned retail stores are located in shopping malls, lifestyle centers, and street locations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Hong Kong.”

And so, understanding the new operating lease accounting standards can reveal additional insight to an investor, mainly:

A debt-free company might not be as risk-free as it seems, as additional risks such as significant contractual obligations that can become hard to fulfill in a tough economic environment.

Good on the FASB to establish operating leases in the balance sheet as the latest GAAP standard, as this additional risk has always been there, but is now in the forefront.

Let’s take another example of a big retailer: Walmart.

Like with $AEO, the company just implemented the new FASB (ASU 2016-02) rule and had operating lease assets and liabilities recorded in the balance sheet for the latest fiscal year (2020) but not the year prior (2019).

Operating leases as a percentage of Total Assets for its ROU assets are 7.4%, indicating a business model much less weighted down by leases on its stores and more on things like Accounts Payable.

Note that in the 10-k the company reported 6,688 properties owned and 5,221 leased, however in the U.S. those figures (which likely contribute a large amount to overall expenses) are 4,701 owned and 841 leased.

The Year-to-Year Impact of Operating Leases on a Company

Looking at the balance sheet is great and all, but just the base figure or even percentage of assets for operating leases doesn’t tell the entire story.

Those numbers could be very unequal.

A company with a 5 year term on their leases, for example, could have higher liquidity needs in the short term than a company on a 10 year—even if the 5 year lease ends with a lower total operating lease figure on the balance sheet than the 10 year.

Here’s where the shortcut comes in.

You can usually find an obligations or contractual commitments section in the 10-k by simply searching the term “obligations” (use “Ctrl+F” to do this quickly).

In most of the 10-k’s I’ve read after (ASU 2016-02) was established, I’ve been able to find a section where obligations are disclosed on an annual basis, grouped by just a few years.

Let’s go back to the $AEO 10-k, which discloses these in their Obligations and Commitments section:

Note that again the operating leases in the blue don’t exactly reconcile with the figures in the balance sheet. However, the company made a note of this in the 10-k which I’ll quote here:

“Upon adoption, the Company:

• Recognized operating lease liabilities and operating lease ROU assets of $1.6 billion, for the present value of the remaining minimum rental payments on existing operating leases (including consideration related to non-lease components due to the related practical expedient).

• Recognized a transition adjustment of $44.4 million (net of tax effects of $15.0 million) to beginning retained earnings related to the impairment of newly recognized operating lease ROU assets related to store assets that were impaired prior to the date of adoption.

• Reclassified $82.9 million of straight-line deferred rent, $55.0 million of deferred lease credits, and $40.4 million of prepaid rent to the operating lease ROU asset. Combined with the impairment discussed above, these reclassifications reduced the net operating lease ROU asset to $1.4 billion. Corresponding amounts were not reclassified in prior periods as those prior periods are presented under ASC 840, Leases.”

Operating Leases in the Income Statement

That we know where to source the short term impact of operating leases on a company’s financials, which can help immensely in projecting future cash flows, we’ll turn to the income statement—which is good for seeing how operating expenses have affected the bottom line in the past.

To find operating leases in the income statement, we’ll have to be intelligent about it.

Because there seems to be some leeway on where these expenses are included in the P&L, we have to understand that companies may place them in different sections, and not necessarily as its own line item.

Knowing the Short-term obligations figure (from the previous section) can sometimes help in this determination, as it gives us a ballpark estimate on how much the company tends to spend on operating leases per year.

Here’s two examples with operating lease accounting in the income statement included in two separate places:

$AEO again is a great example here, as it seems they chose to include their operating lease expenses in the Cost of Sales, including certain buying, occupancy, and warehousing expenses line item.

With operating leases due in Less than 1 Year at $374,819, and those in succeeding years a bit lower than the average, really the operating leases could’ve fallen under the Cost of Sales ($2,785,911) or the Selling, general, and administration expenses ($1,029,412), as we’ll see in example #2.

What those differences indicate is that the type of business will likely influence how a company chooses to categorize their operating lease expenses in the income statement.

Operating Leases in Administration Expenses

Where the company in example #2, Value Line ($VALU), doesn’t have physical stores to serve customers but rather just keeps office space for employees, $AEO relies on its stores and foot traffic to directly drive revenues, which most likely explains the inclusion in Cost of Sales (as the mentioning of “occupancy” in Cost of Sales further suggests the inclusion of operating lease expenses here).

In this example, the Contractual Obligations section for $VALU discloses that Operating Lease Obligations due in less than 1 year are just $1,399 (in thousands), with future obligations averaging around that figure for the next 1-5 years.

Looking at their income statement, the only expense that really makes sense for the operating lease expense seems to be the Office and Administration line item, which recorded a charge of $4,435 (in thousands) and is a high enough number to indicate the expense likely was recorded here.

However, I’ll note that this 10-k by $VALU was one released without the FASB (ASU 2016-02), in place yet. They’ll have to implement the new accounting standard in their next 10-k, and so we’ll see how they choose to record the operating lease in the income statement, if there’s even a change at all.

The vagueness of operating lease accounting in the income statement could’ve been a main reason for the push to include it in the balance sheet moving forward.

How New Operating Lease Accounting Could Greatly Distort ROA

Let’s go back to the $AEO screenshot at the very top of this post to illustrate the final impact to the new balance sheet operating lease accounting inclusion.

I’ve now highlighted the difference between 2020 and 2019 to illustrate the impact on the balance sheet of the adoption to the FASB (ASU 2016-02) rule.

Notice especially how the Total Assets and Total Laibilities have changed, while nothing inherent about the business has changed at all.

With the impact to the income statement and charging of expenses to remain mostly constant, but the balance sheet Total Assets and Total Liabilities changing in value immensely (particularly for retail stocks), metrics that involve Total Assets without including the counter-balancing Total Liabilities will see huge distrotions.

Total Assets and Liabilities Change, While Other Metrics Do Not

For example, Return on Assets (ROA) takes the Net Income and divides it by Total Assets. This ROA figure will decrease greatly for AEO, even though their ROE and ROIC won’t be affected by the new FASB adoption.

So, this inequality of distortion in measuring efficiency of creating revenues, earnings, and cash flows from a base of assets/equity/ invested capital by ROA instead of ROE or ROIC could lead to a mis-understanding of the changing economics of a business or businesses over this adoption period and permanently alter the average ROA for certain industries (in-depth statistics on average ROA by industry pre-FASB ASU (2016-02) adoption can be found here).

Debt to Total Assets or Equity to Asset ratios are other metric with the possibility to face distortions by this new implementation of operating leases in the balance sheet, as well as other similar type of metrics.

Those metrics that include both Total Assets and Total Liabilities in their equations (such as Debt to Equity), or those solely including Shareholder’s Equity with Income Statement or Cash Flow Statement figures shouldn’t be affected, as the impact of (ASU 2016-02) get automatically absorbed in their formulas.

Investor Takeaway

With the large prevalence of algorithmic trading in today’s market, this change can be a source of serious opportunity for the attentive investor who’s not blindly trading on GAAP figures like an algo is.

The next logical step towards mastering this accounting standard is to incorporate it with other important financial models, such as those that involve financial statement forecasts.

I highly recommend reviewing Cameron Smith’s phenomenal 3-part series on each of these critical statements, to create forward looking P/E estimates, valuations, profitability analysis, and monitors on the critical changes in cash flows during the year to year operations of a business: