Proposed new lease accounting standards from the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board and the International Accounting Standards Board have the retail real estate world dizzy with worry as property owners and managers fear the new standards will cripple tenants and lead to shorter lease terms and more conservative expansion strategies.

Financial Accounting Standards 13 (FAS 13) would require all lease liabilities to be accounted for on corporate balance sheets as capital leases rather than as operating leases. That’s an important distinction because operating leases allow tenants to account for lease liabilities as they are incurred. In contrast, capital lease liabilities must be accounted for in their entirety every quarter.

In addition, the new standards would require corporations, including retailers, to account for the full potential liabilities of leases—including options and percentage rent, not just the base rental fee. They would have to provide estimates on all contingency-based payments built into the lease, including renewal options, rent based on a percentage of sales and co-tenancy kick-ins.

So, for example, a retailer would have to account for the entire potential 15 years’ worth of costs on a lease with a five-year term and two five-year options. As a result, retailers’ debt loads could appear to balloon up to ten times their current levels.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has estimated that more than $1 trillion in operating leases throughout the entire commercial real estate sector would need to be reclassified when FAS 13 goes into effect. As it stands, the two accounting boards plan to finalize the leasing standards no later than the second quarter of 2011.

The problem with this is that over the past few decades, retailers, more than any other type of commercial tenant, have become dependent on using various forms of contingency rents, says Vivian Mumaw, global director of lease administration with Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based third party property management provider.

The intricacies alone will make it difficult to comply with the rule. Retail leases today typically have five- to 10-year terms, with multiple renewal options. In addition, virtually all retailers pay a portion of their rents based on percentage of sales—meaning they pay more if sales exceed a certain threshold—while many also employ co-tenancy clauses, which trigger decreases in rental rates if other retailers move out of a shopping center.

All of that will make it difficult for retail chains to accurately estimate liabilities for the entire length of each lease, Mumaw says. In order to do so, they would have to forecast macroeconomic conditions, as well as the performance of their brand and the performance of each individual store many years into the future.

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