Starting with Why: Every day in business, you encounter things that annoy, frustrate, or confuse you. I wanted to talk about how I’ve chosen to accept some of the things I cannot change.
One of the more frustrating points about running a business is that you can either know what it’s really worth or keep accurate books for taxes. And never the twain shall meet.
Businesses are punished on their balance sheets for being good negotiators. At the same time, they are required to take totally fallacious “expenses” while being forbidden from taking real ones. Here’s a few examples:
- Cost basis
- Capitalized expenses
We recently bought an asset from a motivated seller for much less than its appraised value. We got our loan based on the appraised value, but we are required to book the building at the purchase price. As Zacks explains:
Under corporate accounting standards, when a company acquires an asset, it puts that asset on its balance sheet with a value equal to its “historical cost” – what the company paid for it. If it’s a fixed asset with a limited lifespan, such as a building or a piece of equipment, the company gradually depreciates that asset over time, which reduces its balance sheet value. Even if the company has good reason to believe that an asset has risen in value, it still cannot increase that asset’s “book value,” the value reported on the balance sheet.
So we have a $120-thousand building we have to book as an $80-thousand asset. And we have an $85-thousand loan against that asset. So our books show us with $5-thousand of negative equity instead of $15-thousand it positive equity. Our books show us making a stupid purchasing decision instead of a really good one.
Now factor in depreciation. Nobody doubts that assets (be they machines or real estate) eventually wear out. Rather than qualifying that wearing out, businesses are required to take what I like to call “stylized depreciation.” (“Stylized” sounds so much better than “fictional.” Doesn’t it?) I think the real term is “standard depreciation.”
The IRS assumes a 39 year life for commercial buildings and a 27.5 year life for residential rentals. For the asset I mentioned above, we’re required to write down 1/30 (2.654%) of the $74-thousand valuation of the building—not the land—every year until we eventually show no value for the asset except the cost of the raw land at purchase. And remember depreciation affects value. So our building will be worth about $1,900 less every year. It will show negative equity for 10 to 15 years.
We must really suck at business! We don’t, but that’s the story our books will continue to tell about this building.
The only good thing I have to say about depreciation is that it also reduces my net taxable income. Maybe not as much as my actual expenses would if they were not capitalized, but every little bit helps.
Capitalized expenses are pretty much what they sound like—expenses businesses are required to show as assets. Sometimes that makes sense. One of the first things we’re going to do with our new building is to spend about $6K on a new HVAC system. That’s money we have to spend (an expense) but it also pays for an asset that should last a few years—probably longer than its depreciation period. That means it increases the value of our building until it doesn’t. (I don’t know how long that is, which is why we pay a good CPA firm lots of money every year. Luckily, I think that counts as an expense.)
But sometimes it doesn’t make sense to capitalize expense. All or the settlement costs, including legal fees, we paid to buy that building are capitalized. We spent the money on a one-time service with no ongoing value, but nope! That’s an asset, not an expense.
All these (and other) factors encourage businesses to churn their holdings. If you hold a building long enough, it looks like you are broke no matter how much the building is actually worth. But if you churn your holdings, you can make it look like your business is growing, even if you pay too much.
As I write this post, I’m wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Bob Ross painting. The caption talks about repainting mistakes to make them into birds. So rather than get all “Back in Black” about these accounting idiosyncrasies that make it so hard to know how well my businesses are doing, I’m making them birds. I like birds. Birds make sense.