IAS 37 – Provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets

For some ACCA candidates, specific IFRS® standards are more favoured than others. IAS® 37 appears to be less popular than other standards because, usually, answers to Financial Reporting (FR) questions required a balanced discussion of whether criteria are met, as opposed to calculating numbers. However, IAS 37 is often a key standard in FR exams, and candidates must be prepared to wrestle with applying the criteria.

This article will consider the aims of the standard, followed by the key specific criteria which must be met for a provision to be recognised. Finally, it will examine some specific issues which are often assessed in relation to the standard.

The definition of a provision is key to the standard. A provision is a liability of uncertain timing or amount, meaning that there is some question over either how much will be paid or when this will be paid. In the past, these uncertainties may have been exploited by companies trying to ‘smooth profits’ in order to achieve the results they believe that their various stakeholder may want.

For example, let’s take a fictional company, Rey Co. At the start of the year, Rey Co sets a profit target of $10m for the year ended 31 December 20X8. The chief accountant of Rey Co has reviewed the profit to date and realises they are likely to achieve profits of $13m. The accountant knows that if Rey Co  reports a profit of $13m, directors will not get any more of a bonus than if they reported $10m. He also knows that the profit target will be set at $14m in the next year.

To avoid this, the accountant may be tempted to make some provisions for some potential future expenses of $3m, with the impact of making the profit seem lower in the current period. As the double entry for a provision is to debit an expense and credit the liability, this would potentially reduce the profit down to $10m. Then in the next year, the chief accountant could reverse this provision, by debiting the liability and crediting the profit or loss. This is effectively an attempt to move $3m profit from the current year into the next period.

Clearly this is not good for the users of the financial statements, as they would have been manipulated and given a false impression of the performance of the business. This is where IAS 37 is used to ensure that companies report only those provisions that meet certain criteria.

IAS 37 stipulates the criteria for provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets which must be met in order for a provision to be recognised, so that companies should be prevented from manipulating profits. According to IAS 37, 3 criteria are required to be met before a provision can be recognised. These are:

  1. There needs to be a present obligation from past event
  2. There needs to be a reliable estimate
  3. There needs to be a probable outflow

These criteria will now be examined in further detail to see how they can be applied in practice.

1. Present obligation from a past event

This rule has two parts, first the type of obligation, and second, the requirement for it to come from a past event (something must have already have  happened to create the obligation).

(a) Type of obligation

The obligation could be a legal or contractual one, arising from a court case or some kind of contractual arrangement. Most candidates are able to spot this in exams, identifying the presence of a potential obligation of this type.

The second type of obligation is one called a constructive obligation. This is where a company establishes an expectation through an established course of past practice.

Example

Rey Co has a published environmental policy. In this, Rey Co explains that they always replant trees to counter-balance the environmental damage created by their operations. Rey Co has a consistent history of honouring this policy. During 20X8, Rey Co opened a new factory, leading to some environmental damage. Rey Co estimate that the damage will cost $400,000 to restore.

Even if the country has no legal regulations forcing Rey Co to replant trees, Rey Co will have a constructive obligation because it has created an expectation from its publications, practice and history.

(b) Past event

The obligation needs to have arisen from a past event, rather than simply something which may or may not arise in the future.

Example

Rey Co would have to provide for a potential legal case arising from an employee who was injured at work in 20X8 due to faulty equipment. This is because the event arose in 20X8 which could lead to an obligation.

Rey Co could not provide for any possible claims which may arise from injuries in the future. That is because there is no past event which has created the obligation. Similarly, if Rey Co has to pay to install new safety equipment in the factory in 20X9, there is no present obligation to do this in 20X8, so no provision is required. Rey Co could delay the work until 20X9, or sell the building.

2. Reliable estimate

In an exam, it is unlikely that there will not be a reliable estimate. Likewise it is unlikely that an entity will be able to avoid recording a liability when there is an obligation by claiming there is no way of producing an estimate of the amount. The main rule to follow is that if the item is a one-off item, the best estimate will be the most likely outcome. If the item is made up of a number of items, such as a warranty provision for repairing goods, the expected value should be calculated using the probability of all events happening.

Example – best estimate

Rey Co has received legal advice that the most likely outcome of the court case from the employee is that they will lose the case and have to pay $10m. The legal team think there is an 80% chance of this. They believe there is a 10% chance of having to pay $12m, and a 10% chance of paying nothing.

In this case, Rey Co would provide $10m, being the most likely outcome. It will not be uncommon to take the $12m, thinking that the worst-case scenario should be provided for. Other candidates may calculate an expected value based on the various probabilities.

Example – expected value

Rey Co gives a year’s warranty with all goods sold during the year. Past experience shows that Rey Co needs to do no repairs on 85% of the goods. On average, 10% need minor repairs, and 5% need major repairs. Rey Co’s manufacturing manager has calculated that if minor repairs were needed on all goods it would cost $100,000, and major repairs on all goods would cost $1m.

Here, the provision would be measured at $60k. The expected cost of minor repairs would be $10k (10% of $100k) and the expected costs of major repairs is $50k (5% of $1m). This is because there will not be a one-off payment, so Rey Co should calculate the estimate of all of the likely repairs.

3. Probable outflow

The final criteria required is that there needs to be a probable outflow of economic resources. There is no specific list of what % likelihood is required for an outflow to be probable. A probable outflow simply means that it is more likely than not that the entity will have to pay money out.

If it appears that there is a possible outflow then no provision is recorded. In this situation, a contingent liability would be reported. A contingent liability is simply a disclosure note shown in the notes to the accounts. There is no double entry recorded in respect of this. Instead, a description of the event should be given to the users with an estimate of the potential financial effect. In addition to this, the expected timing of when the event should be resolved should also be included.

Similar to the concept of a contingent liability is the concept of a contingent asset. This relates to a potential inflow of economic resources which could come into the entity. Like a contingent liability, a contingent asset is simply disclosed rather than a double entry being recorded. Again, a description of the event should be recorded in addition to any potential amount related to this. The key difference is that a contingent asset is only recorded if there is a probable future inflow, rather than a possible one. The table below shows the treatment for an entity depending on the likelihood of an item happening.

Likelihood

Outflow of resources

(Rey Co has to pay out)

Inflow of resources

(Rey Co may receive income)

Remote

Do nothing

Do nothing

Possible

Contingent liability

Do nothing

Probable

Provision

Contingent asset

Virtually certain

Provision

Asset

It can be seen here that Rey Co could only recognise an asset from a potential inflow if it is virtually certain. In reality a virtually certain inflow is unlikely. For example, in the case of an insurance claim where Rey Co can show they have cover.

Example – Likelihood

Rey Co’s legal advisors continue to believe that it is likely that Rey Co will lose the court case against the employee and have to pay out $10m. However, it has come to light that Rey Co may have a counter claim against the manufacturer of the machinery. The legal advisors believe that there is an 80% chance that the counter claim against the manufacturer is likely to succeed, and believe that Rey Co would win $8m.

In this case, Rey Co would include a provision for the $10m loss in liabilities. Even though there is a similar likelihood that Rey Co would win the counterclaim, this is a probably inflow and therefore only a contingent asset can be recorded. This will be disclosed in the notes to the financial statements rather than being recorded as an asset in the statement of financial position. Whilst this seems inconsistent, this demonstrates the asymmetry of prudence, that losses will be recorded earlier than potential gains.

Other issues within provisions

1. The time value of money

If the time value of money is material, generally if the potential outflow is payable in one year or more, the provision should be discounted to present value initially. Subsequently, the discount on this provision would be unwound over time, to record the provision at the actual amount payable. The unwinding of this discount would be recorded in the statement of profit or loss as a finance cost.

Example

At 31 December 20X8, the legal advisors of Rey Co now believe that the $10m payment from the court case would be payable in one year. Rey Co has a cost of capital of 10%.

On 31 December 20X8, Rey Co should record the provision at $10m/1.10, which is $9.09m. This should be debited to the statement of profit or loss, with a liability of $9.09m recorded.

By 31 December 20X9, when Rey Co is required to make the payment, the liability should be showing at $10m, not $9.09m. Therefore the liability is increased by 10% over the year, giving an increase of $910k which would be recorded in finance costs.

2. Restructuring costs

Restructuring costs associated with reorganising divisions provide two issues. The first is to assess whether an obligation exists at the reporting date. The key here is whether the restructuring has been announced to the affected employees. If the employees have been informed, then an obligation exists and a provision must be made. If the employees have not been informed, then the company could change its mind. Therefore there is no present obligation to incur the costs associated with this.

The second issue consideration is which costs should be included within the provision. These costsshould exclude any costs associated with any continuing activities. Therefore any provision should only include items such as redundancies and closure costs. Ongoing costs such as the costs of relocating staff should be excluded from the provision and should instead be expensed as they are incurred.

3. Onerous contracts

Onerous contracts are those in which the costs of meeting the contract will exceed any benefits which will flow to the entity from the contract. As soon as an entity is aware that a contract is onerous, the full loss should be provided for as a liability in the statement of financial position.

4. Dismantling costs associated with assets

So far, all of the items considered in this article have involved the provision being recorded as a liability with the debit being shown as an expense in the statement of profit or loss. The exception to this is if an entity creates an obligation for future costs due to the construction of a non-current asset. In this case, the provision should be included within the original cost of the asset, as this is directly attributable to the construction of that asset.

Example

Rey Co constructed an oil platform in the sea on 1 January 20X8 at a cost of $150m. As part of obtaining permission to construct the platform, Rey Co has a legal obligation to remove the asset at the end of its useful life. This obligation has a present value of $20m.

Here, Rey Co would capitalise the $170m as part of property, plant and equipment. As only $150m has been paid, this amount would be credited to cash, with a $20m provision set up. Over the useful life of the asset, the $170m will be depreciated. In addition to this, the discount on the provision will be unwound and the provision increased each year.

5. Future operating losses

Future operating losses do not meet the criteria for a provision, as there is no obligation to make these losses. Therefore there cannot be included in the financial statemets.

In summary, IAS 37 is a key standard for FR candidates. Candidates are required to learn the three key criteria for a provision, as they are likely to have to explain these in an exam. Careful attention must also be paid to the calculations involved in the recording of a provision, particularly those around long-term provisions and including them at present value. If candidates are able to do this, then provisions can be an area where they can score highly in the FR exam.

Written by a member of the Financial Reporting examining team