Remember Enron and off-balance-sheet accounting scandals? The efforts to clean up these accounting practices are still in the works and are about to hit the world of commercial real estate—arguably at the worst possible time. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) (which is endowed with the power to decide U.S. generally accepted accounting principles) and its international counterpart, the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) are hoping to enact a new lease accounting standard by 2013. The Securities and Exchange Commission in a 2005 report to Congress estimated that the current lease accounting standards which went into effect in 1976 allow tenants to keep about $1.25 trillion in future liabilities off-balance-sheet.
Currently, a lease may be shown on a tenant’s balance sheet as either a capital lease which is treated on the balance sheet much like a finance transaction or as an operating lease which is mostly off-balance sheet. The FASB and IASB believe that investors are not getting a full picture of a tenant’s obligations when the lease is treated as an operating lease because the lease payments are recognized as an expense when they are incurred or paid rather than all of the rental payments for the term appearing as a liability on the balance sheet.