Remember When an Operating Lease Was Just an Expense?

June 4, 2024

Written by Frank Fehribach, MAI, MRICS; Danny Cuellar

There was once a time when no one considered a lease as an asset. It was just an expense to be paid at the end of the month and ignored until the following month. Then ASC 842 came around in 2018 and operating leases became assets—right-of-use assets (ROUs), to be exact. ROU assets had to be put on the balance sheet and depreciated. Then they had to be tested for impairment. Now, for some firms that are downsizing their operations (or downsizing their physician practices), they must be impaired. 

History of Lease Accounting

In the beginning, there was FAS 13, Accounting for Leases. For lessees, leases were either operating or capital leases. Operating leases were expensed and capital leases, if they passed the test, were put on the balance sheet. To be a capital lease, you had to meet one or more of the four criteria: 

  1. The lease transfers ownership of the property to the lessee by the end of the lease term.
  2. The lease contains a bargain purchase option.
  3. The lease term is equal to 75% or more of the estimated economic life of the leased property.
  4. The present value of the minimum lease payments is equal to 90% of the fair value of the leased property.

FAS 13, which came into effect in 1977, became known as ASC 840 under the codification of the accounting standards. ASC 840 would continue until it was replaced by ASC 842 in 2019 for public companies and 2021 for private companies. ASC 842 was developed over nearly a decade and released in 2016. The main difference between the ASC 840 and 842 was that all operating leases greater than 12 months in term would be recognized on the balance sheet as both an ROU asset and a liability.  The Financial Accounting Standards Board had hoped this difference would increase transparency. It certainly had the effect of producing large lease guidance manuals from all the major accounting firms. It also produced a whole new category of assets that potentially need to be tested for impairment, and to be impaired if they failed.

Accounting Firm Guidance

Accounting firm guidance indicates that ROU assets are subject to ASC 360-10 impairment guidance applicable to long-lived assets. ROU assets must be assessed for potential impairment if there is an internal or external indicator, like the decision to vacate a leased space entirely or partially. However, vacating a leased space does not mean that it has been abandoned.  Abandonment accounting would only apply if the space were vacated and not used at all (even for storage) without intent to sublease the space. 

What Does ASC 360 Require?

ASC Topic 360, Property, Plant, and Equipment was issued in August 2001. Because of ASC 842, former operating leases of more than one year are now long-lived assets. These leases are subject to the same asset impairment guidance in ASC 360 that applies to any other property, plant, and equipment assets.   ASC 360-10-35-23 states, “For purposes of recognition and measurement of an impairment loss, a long-lived asset or assets shall be grouped with other assets and liabilities at the lowest level for which identifiable cash flows are largely independent of the cash flows of other assets and liabilities.” 

An ROU asset has identifiable cash flows based on the lease payments. Testing is performed based on an undiscounted cash flow. During normal business operations, leased space is often vacated as operations are right-sized to the current business environment, creating a need to test for impairment. If the undiscounted cash flow is lower than the carrying amount of the asset, ASC 360 requires the owner of that ROU asset to reduce it to its fair value. 

Fair Value of a Right-of-Use Asset

What is the fair value of an ROU asset that is no longer used for the purpose that it was created for through the lease? To answer this question, we must know what market participants would pay for this asset if offered on the market as of the trigger date. For an ROU asset, this would be a sublease and the present value of future sublease payments. Typically, there is a certain period to find a sublease tenant, and then the sublease tenant would occupy the space for the remainder of the primary term. Option periods, that before may have been included in the ROU asset, may be excluded because the landlord may not allow it, or the actual tenant may want to end the lease and not exercise an option. If option periods were included in the ROU asset value originally, the impairment amount would increase. Additionally, the discounting of the sublease payments is done at a market rate not an internal borrowing rate (IBR) used to establish the ROU asset value initially. 

Complete Vacancy vs. Partial Vacancy

During a lease term, an organization’s operations in the leased space can be completely shut down or downsized. Typically, a completely vacated space will fail Step 1 of the testing, as there is no cashflow being generated for the lease space. For a partial vacancy, the Step 1 test becomes even more important, as part of the space is still being utilized. However, our experience is that a partially vacated space will still trigger the need to test for impairment. For a completely vacated lease, there is usually the assumption that the ROU asset must be impaired. 

Navigating the New Lease Accounting Landscape

In this new world of ROU assets, health systems need to be wary of physician practice downsizing in a leased space. Downsizing in a leased space could and should trigger impairment testing and possibly adjustment to fair value. The transition to ASC 842 represents a significant shift toward greater transparency in lease accounting, as the new standards provide a clearer picture of an entity’s financial obligations, though they also require more complex accounting. VMG Health has extensive experience assisting health systems and physician practices with this financial reporting exercise. 

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