The Leasing Illusion

Changes loom menacingly in the land of lease accounting. Be afraid… or not. They might inadvertently protect companies from approving bad projects.

This month Deloitte released survey results warning that most companies are not ready for pending changes to lease accounting rules. These changes will likely cause considerable surprise, confusion and pain. Godspeed, my friends.

I see a silver lining, however. Because these changes make leases look less attractive on financial statements, I predict that many companies will make better decisions on their equipment and IT investments. Why? Because many bad projects, projects with negative value if purchased, magically appear profitable if leased. “Appear” is the operative word because the profit is likely an illusion. The two biggest warning flags are:

  • “Leasing improves financial ratios.” Certainly, some accounting ratios almost always look better under leasing. But accounting metrics are the wrong tool for evaluating medium and long-term investment decisions. Let’s stick with the proper finance tools for capital investment decisions.
  • “It had a higher NPV.” At least now we are using the right tool (Net Present Value), but it has probably been mishandled. I’ll minimize the finance mumbo-jumbo and just say that we can’t use our ‘normal’ discount rate. When we use the normal discount rate, we under-estimate the true cost of the lease. When I raised this issue at a recent roundtable, one banker regarded me with visible distain and stated, “It’s basic Finance 101; all cash flows are run at WACC” (WACC is the ‘normal’ discount rate). I refrained from suggesting he should have stuck around for Finance 302 to tackle hairier issues like leases.

The best practice for avoiding errors is to base project approvals on purchase scenarios. Only after clearing that hurdle should we consider whether leasing is the preferred financing arrangement. However, if projects had a low or negative values if purchased but were approved based on a leasing scenario, it’s a good bet that those projects were mistakes.

It’s Never Over
The new accounting rules may temporarily curtail leasing, inadvertently reducing the number of bad projects that sneak through approval. However, leasing is an industry known for its creativity in ‘financial engineering.’ We will likely see new structures evolve that artfully dodge the new rules and the threat of errors return.

In any event, decision-makers need to keep up their guard when asked to approve projects employing leasing or any other fancy financing maneuvers. In every case ask the question, “What is the project value if we purchase the equipment outright?” If the project is a loser as a straight purchase, it is almost guaranteed that the fancy financing is simply concealing a bad project. If you would like to explore this further, drop me a line – I’d be pleased to provide more detail.

© 2011 Verax Point Consulting, LLC

About Dave Wittenberg

I am all about equipping business teams to enjoy greater payoffs on their biggest bets. I bring a unique combination of evaluation expertise and behavioral insights developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives. Applying a highly effective, disciplined framework, teams unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. Specialties: Investment Evaluation, Decision Excellence, Strategic Analysis, Mergers and Acquisitions, Investor Relations, Leadership Development, Education & Training
This entry was posted in Biases & Traps, Valuations. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Leasing Illusion

  1. Pingback: The Leasing Loophole | The CapEx Compass™

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