New leasing rules could hit bank lending

There may have been few surprises in this week’s new lease accounting
proposal by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), but that didn’t
stop alarm bells ringing in the finance departments of some of the nation’s
largest companies.

While the effect on major supermarkets and airlines has attracted the most
attention, it may be its impact on the ­troubled banking sector that reaps the
most damage to the UK’s fragile economy.

The leasing industry is big business. US estimates put the value of global
leased assets at £765.8bn, which equates to about 21 times the UK’s annual
defence budget. The current operating lease commitments of the top 50 FTSE-100
companies alone comes to about £94bn, according to a high level study by a major
accounting firm.

And it’s in the troubled financial sector where the proposals may cut
deepest. Banks are major lessees, holding thousands of properties in shopping
malls and high streets where they operate retail outlets. Many of these leases
are currently hidden
off balance sheet, according to the IASB, which wants to bring them back via a
of-use” asset and a liability to pay rentals.

Banks are also significant lessors and, under the proposals, if a bank still
holds the risks associated with a leased asset, it must report an associated

Increased liabilities are bad news for banks, which are bound by capital
requirements set by regulators. If a bank’s balance sheet lists towards the
liability side, its ability to lend shrinks.

According to analysis of published accounts, the UK’s big five listed banks –
HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays, RBS and Standard Chartered – have total commitments of
approximately £18bn.

HSBC group finance director Douglas Flint raised concerns in July 2009. In a
letter to the IASB he warned that a new leasing model “could have significant
capital impacts for regulated entities such as banking institutions”.

The Finance and Leasing Association (FLA) said there has been little
co-ordination with regulators, who set capital requirements, on the issue.

“Our members… within the banks are worried about this,” said Julian Rose,
head of asset finance at the FLA. “If this standard results in them having to
report higher liabilities their ability to lend would go down.”

Banks are under pressure to increase lending. Business secretary Vince Cable
last month unveiled a consultation with the Treasury aimed at improving cash
flow to businesses.

John Williamson, audit and assurance partner with PwC, said banks had begun
fretting about the IASB’s proposals. “I know there is a concern there as far as
the impact on regulatory capital… At the moment [regulators] are not following
strict accounting and it is probably a bit premature to assume it may have an
affect on regulatory capital.”

Veronica Poole, senior partner with Deloitte, said the regulators may have to
tweak their capital requirements to reflect the new-look balance sheet. “With
any of this stuff, what you don’t know is whether the regulator will make an
adjustment… The economics of the transactions have not changed,” she said.

The issue feeds into a wider debate about accounting standard setting. The
lessor accounting proposals, which causes the liability-stacking issue, only
wormed its way into the final standard as a concession to the US accounting rule
maker, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).

The IASB and FASB have been attempting to converge their two accounting
codes, but disagreed on whether to include changes to complex lessor accounting
at all. At one point the two boards had tentatively agreed to abandon the more
complex lessor accounting treatment, but reconsidered their decision after FASB
voiced concerns. The disagreement has stirred opposition to the IASB-FASB
relationship, which has been blamed for increasing complexity in financial

Brian O’Donovan, IFRS partner at KPMG, said there are now concerns being
raised about whether the relationship is adding complexity to accounting rules.

“The question is whether having those differences aired and thrashed out is a
good thing… or whether you believe it just causes unnecessary complexity,” he

Plans have been in the pipeline for a new leasing standard since 1996. The
proposals predate the formation of the IASB by five years, when the
quasi-official G4 + 1 group of accountants decided the treatment of leases at
the time was both arbitrary and unsatisfactory.

The leasing industry led the charge against the proposals last Tuesday, with
industry group Leaseurope warning the new accounting rule was so complex it had
the potential to “overshadow the economic benefits” provided by European

Among Leaseurope’s members are recognisable retailers, banks, transport
companies and other major users of leases, which have been privately modeling
the effects of the proposals. Their tests suggest the standard could wipe 20-25%
off their reported pre-tax profit.


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