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Conquer complexity: Get briefed on the latest accounting updates

In the accounting world, the rules are ever changing. Large in scope and long awaited, the new rule for recognizing revenue continues to get clarifications in the months leading up to its effective date. The new leasing standard is finally here as well and sharing the attention. Those are just the biggies—the Financial Accounting Standards Board has been coming out with a flurry of changes in recent months, and regulators are paying attention to what you are doing with them. There’s a ton of information to follow to stay compliant.

How equipped finance teams are to keep up with all the moving parts varies quite a bit. They oftentimes find it beneficial to lean on technical accounting experts who can decipher the never-ending landscape and help with interpretations. Such experts can help them stay on track in understanding the latest accounting refinements, transition-method choices and effective dates. Diana Gilbert, senior consultant at RoseRyan and head of our Technical Accounting Group, helped many companies get up to speed during the June 2 webinar, “Demystifying the Latest Major Accounting Changes.”

This fast moving, 90-minute, all-out binge covered the latest twists and turns that have come out from FASB and regulators over the past year. Some changes have simplified things. Others will have a narrow effect. And many will force finance teams to do some soul searching as the deadlines near. Contracts and compensation plans may need to be revisited.

Diana filled in listeners (most of whom were from life sciences and technology companies) on the five topics below, along with other changes, and gave timely advice along the way.

Revenue recognition: Companies that don’t have a game plan for the new revenue recognition standard are running out of excuses. The SEC has been “aggressively” referencing the new rule in recent speeches to let companies know they will be watching what gets said in disclosures, Diana said. Boilerplate, vague language won’t cut it much longer.

“This has been out there since 2014, so they are going to question why you’re still evaluating it now,” she said. “If you’re honestly, sincerely evaluating it, then just be prepared for the questions. But if you’ve done your evaluation and pretty much do understand the impact, then think about including more detailed disclosures, particularly about decisions you’ve already made,” such as the transition method the company will be taking and the planned adoption date.

Leases: The new standard finalized in February will bring what we refer to as operating leases today onto the balance sheet. The rule applies to leases of property and equipment with terms of at least one year and centers around the lessee’s “right of use” of an item (the obligation to pay for that right is what will appear on the liability side of the balance sheet).

The new rule could change behavior, Diana predicted. “Think about it. If you’re going to have it on the balance sheet anyway, are you still going to lease it or would you buy it outright?” she said. “You might create new forms of leases that are clearly less than a year, without the option to renew, and you’ll have to deal with the issue every year. That may make sense for inconsequential arrangements. It will be interesting to see what happens going forward.”

Financial instruments: Public companies will begin following new rules on classifying and measuring financial instruments for filings submitted in 2018, and private companies will do so a year later. Equity investments that are not consolidated are generally going to be measured at fair value through earnings. In some ways, disclosure requirements have been simplified with the rule changes—companies won’t have to disclose their methods and significant assumptions for estimating fair value—and in other ways they have expanded.

Stock-based compensation: Companies have “a grocery bag of different changes” to deal with when it comes to improvements to employee share-based payment accounting, Diana warned. The most significant relates to deferred tax assets. When the changes take effect, companies will no longer record excess tax benefits and certain tax deficiencies resulting from share-based awards in additional paid-in capital (APIC). APIC pools are eliminated under the changes.

Diana said this is a “huge simplification” in terms of tracking share-based compensation, but the downside is the potential for more volatility in the income statement. This particular change is applied prospectively from the date of adoption (which begins after December 15, 2016, for public companies).

SEC comments: The SEC staff has always tended to question areas that involve judgment and subjectivity, Diana noted. In recent years, in particular, they have been scrutinizing the statement of cash flows and whether companies’ internal controls are effective. Diana recommended that companies be as clear as possible and use tables and charts to help tell their story.

“Comment letters come about because they don’t understand what’s happening,” Diana said. “Or it’s a complex area and they’re going to ask you questions whether you like it or not.”

Keeping tabs on regulators’ areas of emphasis and accounting standard-setters’ changes takes time and effort. Things are in constant motion, and companies need to stay on top of it all. That’s how they can help minimize the questions that come from regulators and any uncertainty that may arise during implementation. To save time and effort in understanding the latest accounting standards (changes through June 1, 2016), feel free to check out the 90-minute replay of “Demystifying the Latest Major Accounting Changes” here.

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