- General Electric‘s statement of cash flows will look better in 2019 after an accounting change takes effect, according to an accounting professor.
- For reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2018, all public companies in the US should apply a new accounting standard that requires them to recognise financing-lease assets and operating-lease assets on their balance sheets.
- Companies that are not growing fixed assets quickly or that are reducing them, like General Electric, will see a positive adjustment in their free cash flow, and vice versa.
- Watch General Electric trade live.
General Electric‘s cash problem will look better in 2019 after an accounting change takes effect, an accounting professor says.
For reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2018, all public US companies should apply a new accounting standard that requires them to recognise financing-lease assets and operating-lease assets on their balance sheets. The previous accounting term only required companies to recognised capital lease-assets.
With the financing-lease assets and operating-lease assets now being counted as capital expenditures (CAPEX), companies’ free cash flow (operating cash flow minus capital expenditure) will look different than they used to, Charles Mulford, professor of accounting at Georgia Institute of Technology, told Markets Insider. Companies that are not growing their fixed assets quickly, or are reducing them, such as General Electric, will see a positive adjustment in their free cash flow, and vice versa, he added.
According to Mulford, a simple scenario for a capital lease is taking out a loan and spending that money on new equipment. Under the previous accounting standard, the equipment gained through this lease shows up as a CAPEX on the financial statement.
In the case of using a finance lease, companies negotiate terms with a bank, which wires the money directly to the equipment lender. As companies didn’t really touch the money, though still purchased the equipment, the equipment was not reported on the financial statement and only showed up in the footnote. But the new accounting standard sees it as little different than a capital lease, and thus requires it to be recognised as a CAPEX.
Operating leases do not transfer ownership of the new equipment, and payments are made for usage of the asset. A simple scenario is when leasing new equipment from a lender, the lessee makes payments periodically for the right to use the equipment – but does not gain equity in the equipment itself and will not own the equipment at the end of the lease. This type of asset is now required to be recognised on the balance sheet under the new accounting term.
Since companies’ 2019 financial statements are not out yet, Mulford did the maths on his own.
Finance-lease assets, in his eyes, can be viewed as non-cash CAPEX showed in the financial statements’ footnotes. Therefore, by adding the non-cash CAPEX to CAPEX, companies that disclosed non-cash CAPEX, such as Amazon, would see their free cash flow lower. General Electric didn’t post any non-cash CAPEX in its footnotes – at least from 2015 to 2017 – thus it was not affected at this level of adjustment.
Operating-lease assets should be recognised by their capitalised value, which represents what these assets would cost if they were purchased for cash, according to Mulford. He calculated the capitalised value of companies’ operating-lease assets by applying a multiple to their annualized rent expense changes. He also added back the rent expense that year in the operating cash flow to avoid double accounting – since rent expense was already subtracted in the previous term. At this level, GE’s free cash flow was adjusted higher because GE’s rent expenditure that he added back is higher than the increase in GE’s capitalised value of operating leases.
Companies like GE that are limiting their fixed assets will see the same phenomenon, with the adjustment being a positive one, raising adjusted free cash flow above the reported amount, said Mulford. He added that his calculation is just for reference, and when companies’ 2019 financial results are reported later, they are required to recognise the two lease assets on their balance sheets. Based on GE’s 2017 financial statement, its most recently disclosed annual statement, Mulford sees GE’s free cash flow improving by about 2.4% under the new accounting term.
Recently, General Electric has sped up efforts to reduce debt and free up cash. In June, General Electric announced a massive reorganization, saying it would spin-off its healthcare business and split from the oil giant Baker Hughes. The conglomerate also said it would reduce its debt by $US25 billion in an effort to shore up its balance sheet.
Last October, GE announced it was taking a $US23 billion write-down on its power business, which it was also splitting in two, and slashing the company’s dividend to a penny.
And last Thursday, the company said GE Capital sold off $US8 billion of assets in the fourth quarter and brought its debt load down by $US21 billion. GE also announced that it reached an agreement in principal for a $US1.5 billion settlement with the Department of Justice over WMC, its defunct subprime-mortgage business.
GE was up 28% this year through Monday.
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