Chapter Twelve: Current Liabilities and Employer Obligations
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The current liabilities section of the balance sheet contains obligations that are due to be satisfied in the near term, and includes amounts relating to accounts payable, salaries, utilities, taxes, short-term loans, and so forth. This casual description is inadequate for all situations, so accountants have developed a very specific definition to deal with more issues.
Current liabilities are debts that are due to be paid within one year or the operating cycle, whichever is longer; further, such obligations will typically involve the use of current assets, the creation of another current liability, or the providing of some service.
This enhanced definition is expansive enough to capture less obvious obligations pertaining to items like customer prepayments, amounts collected for and payable to third parties, the portion of long-term debt due within one year or the operating cycle (whichever is longer), accrued liabilities for expenses incurred but not yet paid, and contingent liabilities. However, the definition is not meant to include amounts not yet “incurred.” For example, salary to be earned by employees next year is not a current liability (this year) because it has yet to be “incurred.” Investors, creditors, and managers should pay close attention to current liabilities as they reflect imminent demands on resources.
Remember from Chapter 4 that the operating cycle is the length of time it takes to turn cash back into cash. That is, a business starts with cash, buys inventory, sells goods, and eventually collects the sales proceeds in cash. The length of time it takes to do this is the operating cycle. Take careful note of how the operating cycle is included in the above definition of current liabilities: “one year or the operating cycle, whichever is longer.”
For most businesses, the operating cycle is less than one year, but not always. A furniture manufacturer may have to buy and cure wood before it can be processed into a quality product. This could cause the operating cycle to go beyond one year. If that is the case, then current liabilities might include obligations due in more than one year.
Accounts Payable are the amounts due to suppliers relating to the purchase of goods and services. This is perhaps the simplest and most easily understood current liability. Although an account payable may be supported by a written agreement, it is more typically based on an informal working relation where credit has been received with the expectation of making payment in the very near term.
Notes Payable are formal short-term borrowings usually evidenced by specific written promises to pay. Bank borrowings, equipment purchases, and some credit purchases from suppliers involve such instruments. The party who agrees to pay is termed the “maker” of the note. Properly constructed, a note payable becomes a negotiable instrument, enabling the holder of the note to transfer it to someone else. Notes payable typically involve interest, and their duration varies. When a note is due in less than one year (or the operating cycle, if longer), it is commonly reported as a current liability.
The Current Portion of Long-term Debt is another frequently encountered current obligation. When a note or other debt instrument is of long duration, it is reported as a long-term liability. However, the amount of principal which is to be paid within one year or the operating cycle, whichever is longer, should be separated and classified as a current liability. For example, a $100,000 long-term note may be paid in equal annual increments of $10,000, plus accrued interest. At the end of any given year, the $10,000 principal due during the following year should be reported as a current liability (along with any accrued interest), with the remaining balance shown as a long-term liability.
Accrued Liabilities (sometimes called accrued expenses) include items like accrued salaries and wages, taxes, interest, and so forth. These items relate to expenses that accumulate with the passage of time but will be paid in one lump-sum amount. For example, the cost of employee service accrues gradually with the passage of time. The amount that employees have earned but not been paid is termed accrued salaries and should be reported as a current liability. Likewise, interest on a loan is based on the period of time the debt is outstanding; it is the passage of time that causes the interest payable to accrue. Accrued but unpaid interest is another example of an accrued current liability. The reported accrued liabilities only relate to amounts already accumulated and not to amounts that will arise later.
Prepayments by Customers arise from transactions such as selling magazine subscriptions in advance, selling gift-cards, selling tickets well before a scheduled event, and other similar items where the customer deposits money in advance of receiving the expected good or service. These items represent an obligation on the part of the seller to either return the money or deliver a service in the future. As such, the prepayment is reported as “unearned revenue” within the current liability section of the balance sheet. Recall, from earlier chapters, that the unearned revenue is removed and revenue is recognized as the goods and services are provided.
Collections for Third Parties arise when the recipient of some payment is not the beneficiary of the payment. As such, the recipient has an obligation to turn the money over to another entity. At first, this may seem odd. But, consider sales taxes. The seller of merchandise must collect the sales tax on transactions, but then has a duty to pass those amounts along to the appropriate taxing entity. Such amounts are appropriately reflected as a current liability until the funds are remitted to the rightful owner.
Obligations to be Refinanced deserve special consideration. A long-term debt may have an upcoming maturity date within the next year. Ordinarily, this note would be moved to the current liability section. However, companies often renew such obligations, in essence, borrowing money to repay the maturing note. Should currently maturing long-term debt that is subject to refinancing be shown as a current or a long-term liability? To resolve this issue, accountants have developed very specific rules. A currently maturing long-term obligation is to be shown as a current liability unless (1) the company intends to renew the debt on a long-term basis and (2) the company has the ability to do so (ordinarily evidenced by a firm agreement with a competent lender).
Long-term notes will be considered in the next chapter. For the moment, focus on the appropriate accounting for a short-term note. A common scenario would entail the borrowing of money in exchange for the issuance of a promissory note payable. The note will look something like this:
The preceding illustration should not be used as a model for constructing a legal document; it is merely an abbreviated form to focus on the accounting issues. A correct legal form would typically be far more expansive and cover numerous things like what happens in the event of default, who pays legal fees if there is a dispute, requirements of demand and notice, and so forth. In the preceding note, Oliva has agreed to pay to BancZone $10,000 plus interest of $400 on June 30, 20X8. The interest represents 8% of $10,000 for half of a year (January 1 through June 30).
The amount borrowed is recorded by debiting Cash and crediting Notes Payable:
When the note is repaid, the difference between the carrying amount of the note and the cash necessary to repay that note is reported as interest expense. The journal entry follows:
Had the above note been created on October 1, the entries would appear as follows:
In the preceding entries, notice that interest for three months was accrued at December 31, representing accumulated interest that must be paid at maturity on March 31, 20X9. On March 31, another three months of interest was charged to expense. The cash payment included $400 for interest, half relating to the amount previously accrued in 20X8 and half relating to 20X9.
Next, consider how the preceding amounts would appear in the current liability section of the balance sheet at December 31, 20X8. Observe the inclusion of two separate line items for the note and related interest:
In examining this illustration, one might wonder about the order in which specific current obligations are to be listed. One scheme is to list them according to their due dates, from the earliest to the latest. Another acceptable alternative is to list them by maturity value, from the largest to the smallest.
Some short-term borrowing agreements may stipulate that a year is assumed to have 360 days, instead of the obvious 365 days. In the old days, before calculators, this could perhaps be justified to ease calculations. In modern days, it may be that a lender is seeking to prey on unsuspecting borrowers. For example, interest on a $100,000, 8% loan for 180 days would be $4,000 assuming a 360-day year ($100,000 X .08 X 180/360), but only $3,945 based on the more correct 365-day year ($100,000 X .08 X 180/365). It becomes apparent that one should be alert to the stated assumptions intrinsic to a loan agreement.
Next, be aware of the “rule of 78s.” Some loan agreements stipulate that prepayments will be based on this tricky technique. A year has 12 months, and 12 + 11 + 10 + 9 + . . . + 1 = 78; somehow giving rise to the “rule of 78s.” Assume that $100,000 is borrowed for 12 months at 8% interest. The annual interest is $8,000, but, if the interest attribution method is based on the “rule of 78s,” it is assumed that 12/78 of the total interest is attributable to the first month, 11/78 to the next, and so forth. If the borrower desired to prepay the loan after just two months, that borrower would be very disappointed to learn that 23/78 (12 + 11 = 23) of the total interest was due (23/78 X $8,000 = $2,359). If the interest had been based simply on 2 of 12 months, the amount of interest would come to only $1,333 (2/12 X $8,000 = $1,333).
Compounding is another concept that should be understood. So far in this text, simple interest has been used in the illustrated calculations. This merely means that Interest = Loan X Interest Rate X Time. But, at some point, it is fair to assume that the accumulated interest will also start to accrue interest. Some people call this “interest on the interest.” In the next chapter, this will be examined in much more detail. For the moment, just take note that a loan agreement will address this by stating the frequency of compounding. Compounding can occur annually, quarterly, monthly, daily, and even continuously (which requires a bit of calculus to deduce). The narrower the frequency, the greater the amount of total interest that will be calculated.
One last item is to note that a lender might take their interest up front. The note may be issued with interest included in the face value. For example, $9,000 may be borrowed, but a $10,000 note is established (interest is not separately stated). At maturity, $10,000 is repaid, representing a $9,000 repayment of borrowed amounts and $1,000 interest. Note that the interest rate may appear to be 10% ($1,000 out of $10,000), but the effective rate is much higher ($1,000 for $9,000 = 11.11%).
The journal entry to record a note with interest included in face value (also known as a note issued at discount), is as follows:
Observe that the $1,000 difference is initially recorded as a discount on note payable. On a balance sheet, the discount would be reported as contra liability. The $1,000 discount would be offset against the $10,000 note payable, resulting in a $9,000 net liability.
Discount amortization transfers the discount to interest expense over the life of the loan. This means that the $1,000 discount should be recorded as interest expense by debiting Interest Expense and crediting Discount on Note Payable. In this way, the $10,000 paid at maturity (credit to Cash) can be offset with a $10,000 reduction in the Note Payable account (debit).
The entries to record at maturity are as follows:
Be aware that discount amortization occurs not only at the date of repayment, but also at the end of an accounting period. If the preceding example had a maturity date at other than the December 31 year-end, the $1,000 of interest expense would need to be recorded partially in one period and partially in another.
The preceding discussion about unique interest calculations sheds light on the mechanics that lenders can use to tilt the benefit of a lending agreement to their advantage. As a result, statutes have increasingly required fuller disclosure (“truth in lending”) and, in some cases, outright limits on certain practices.
Borrowers should be careful to understand the full economics of any agreement, and lenders should understand the laws that define fair practices. Lenders who overcharge interest or violate laws can find themselves legally losing the right to collect amounts loaned.
Some events may eventually give rise to a liability, but the timing and amount is not presently sure. Such uncertain or potential obligations are known as contingent liabilities. There are numerous examples of contingent liabilities. Legal disputes give rise to contingent liabilities, environmental contamination events give rise to contingent liabilities, product warranties give rise to contingent liabilities, and so forth.
Do not confuse these “firm specific” contingent liabilities with general business risks. General business risks include the risk of war, storms, and the like that are presumed to be an unfortunate part of life for which no specific accounting can be made in advance.
A subjective assessment of the probability of an unfavorable outcome is required to properly account for most contingences. Rules specify that contingent liabilities should be recorded in the accounts when it is probable that the future event will occur and the amount of the liability can be reasonably estimated. This means that a loss would be recorded (debit) and a liability established (credit) in advance of the settlement.
An example might be a hazardous waste spill that will require a large outlay to clean up. It is probable that funds will be spent and the amount can likely be estimated. If the estimated loss can only be defined as a range of outcomes, the U.S. approach generally results in recording the low end of the range. International accounting standards focus on recording a liability at the midpoint of the estimated unfavorable outcomes.
On the other hand, if it is only reasonably possible that the contingent liability will become a real liability, then a note to the financial statements is required. Likewise, a note is required when it is probable a loss has occurred but the amount simply cannot be estimated. Normally, accounting tends to be very conservative (when in doubt, book the liability), but this is not the case for contingent liabilities. Therefore, one should carefully read the notes to the financial statements before investing or loaning money to a company.
There are sometimes significant risks that are simply not in the liability section of the balance sheet. Most recognized contingencies are those meeting the rather strict criteria of “probable” and “reasonably estimable.” One exception occurs for contingencies assumed in a business acquisition. Acquired contingencies are recorded based on an estimate of actual value.
What about remote risks, like a frivolous lawsuit? Remote risks need not be disclosed; they are viewed as needless clutter. What about business decision risks, like deciding to reduce insurance coverage because of the high cost of the insurance premiums? GAAP is not very clear on this subject; such disclosures are not required, but are not discouraged. What about contingent assets/gains, like a company’s claim against another for patent infringement? Such amounts are almost never recognized before settlement payments are actually received.
If a customer was injured by a defective product in Year 1 (assume the company anticipates a large estimated loss from a related claim), but the company did not receive notice of the event until Year 2 (but before issuing Year 1’s financial statements), the event would nevertheless impact Year 1 financial statements. The reason is that the event (“the injury itself”) giving rise to the loss arose in Year 1. Conversely, if the injury occurred in Year 2, Year 1’s financial statements would not be adjusted no matter how bad the financial effect. However, a note to the financial statements may be needed to explain that a material adverse event arising subsequent to year end has occurred.
Product warranties are presumed to give rise to a probable liability that can be estimated. When goods are sold, an estimate of the amount of warranty costs to be incurred on the goods should be recorded as expense, with the offsetting credit to a Warranty Liability account. As warranty work is performed, the Warranty Liability is reduced and Cash (or other resources used) is credited. In this manner, the expense is recorded in the same period as the sale (matching principle). Following are illustrative entries for warranties. In reviewing these entries, note the accompanying explanations:
The warranty calculations can require consideration of beginning balances, additional accruals, and warranty work performed. Assume Zeff Company had a beginning-of-year Warranty Liability account balance of $25,000. During the year Zeff sells $3,500,000 worth of goods, eventually expecting to incur warranty costs equal to 2% of sales ($3,500,000 X 2% = $70,000). The 2% rate is an estimate based on the best information available. Such rates vary considerably by company and product. $80,000 was actually spent on warranty work. How much is the end-of-year Warranty Liability? The T-account reveals an ending warranty liability of $15,000.
Many costs are similar to warranties. Companies may offer coupons, prizes, rebates, air-miles, free hotel stays, free rentals, and similar items associated with sales activity. Each of these gives rise to the need to provide an estimated liability. While the details may vary, the basic procedures and outcomes are similar to those applied to warranties.
Many services are provided to a business by other than employees. These services may include janitorial support, legal services, air conditioner repairs, audits, and so forth. An independent contractor is one who performs a designated task or service for a company. The company has the right to control or direct only the result of the work done by an independent contractor. In contrast, an employee is defined as a person who works for a specific business and whose activities are directed by that business. The business controls what will be done and how it will be done. The distinction is very important, because the payroll tax and record keeping requirements differ for employees and independent contractors. As a general rule, amounts paid to independent contractors do not involve any “tax withholdings” by the payer. However, the payer may need to report the amount paid to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on a Form 1099, with a copy to the independent contractor. But, the obligation for paying taxes rests with the independent contractor.
The employer’s handling of payroll to employees is another matter entirely. Begin by considering the specifics of a paycheck. Paychecks are usually reduced by a variety of taxes, possibly including federal income tax, state income tax, social security taxes, and medicare/medicaid. Additional reductions can occur for insurance, retirement savings, charitable contributions, special health and child care deferrals, and other similar items. Employers may also pay costs related to social security, medicare/medicaid, unemployment taxes, workers compensation insurance, matching contributions to retirement programs, and other items.
The total earnings of an employee is the gross pay. For hourly employees, it is the number of hours worked multiplied by the hourly rate. For salaried employees, it is the flat amount for the period, such as $3,000 per month. Gross pay might be increased for both hourly and salaried employees based on applicable overtime rules. Employers are well advised to monitor statutes relating to overtime; by law, certain employees must be paid for overtime. Gross earnings less all applicable deductions is the net pay.
Income taxes are required to be withheld by federal, state (when applicable), and city (when applicable) governments. The withheld income taxes must be remitted periodically to the government by the employer. In essence, the employer becomes an agent of the government, serving to collect amounts for the government. Withheld amounts that have yet to be remitted to the government are carried as a current liability on the employer’s books (recall the earlier mention of amounts collected for third parties). The level of withholdings is based on the employee’s level of income, the frequency of pay, marital status, and the number of withholding allowances claimed (based on the number of dependents). Employees claim withholding allowances by filing a form W-4 with their employer.
Social Security/Medicare Taxes are also known as FICA. FICA stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. This Act establishes a tax that transfers money from workers to aged retirees (and certain other persons who are in the unfortunate position of not being able to fully provide for themselves due to disability, loss of a parent, or other serious problem). The social purpose of the tax is to provide a modest income stream to the beneficiaries. This component is the social security tax. Another component of the Act is the medicare/medicaid tax, which provides support for health care costs incurred by retirees (and designated others).
The social security tax is presently a designated percentage of income, up to a certain maximum level of annual income per employee. For illustrative purposes, assume a 6% social security tax, on an annual income of $100,000. In the following pay stub, note that I. M. Fictitious paid $180 in social security tax for the month (6% X $3,000). Since Fictitious has not yet exceeded $100,000 in gross income for the year-to-date, the annual maximum has not been reached. If Fictitious exceeds the annual limit, the tax would cease to be withheld for the remainder of the calendar year. The employee’s amount must be matched by the employer. Thus, the burden associated with this tax is actually twice what is apparent to most employees.
The medicare/medicaid tax is also a designated percentage of income. Unlike the social security tax, there is no annual maximum. This tax is levied on every dollar of gross income, without regard to an employee’s total earnings. In the following illustration, the assumed rate is 1.5% (1.5% X $3,000 = $45). This is another tax the employer must match dollar-for-dollar.
Other Employee Deductions can occur for employee cost sharing in health care insurance programs, employee contributions to various retirement or other savings plans, charitable contributions, contributions to tax-advantaged health and child care savings programs, and so forth. In each case, the employer is acting to collect amounts from the employee, with a resulting fiduciary duty to turn the monies over to another entity. A representative paycheck and the attached stub follows. Examine the check and notice that I. M. Fictitious earned $3,000 during the month but “took home” only $1,834.
The journal entry to record I.M. Fictitious's pay would be as follows. Carefully match the amounts in the journal entry to the amounts on the pay stub.
Although not illustrated, as the company remits the withheld amounts to the appropriate entities (i.e., taxes to the government, retirement contributions to an investment trust, etc.), it would debit the related payable and credit Cash.
Recall that the amount of social security and medicare/medicaid tax must be matched by employers. In addition, the employer must pay federal and state unemployment taxes. These taxes are levied to provide funds that are paid to workers who are actively seeking but unable to find regular employment.
The bulk of unemployment tax is usually levied at the state level since most states choose to administer their own unemployment programs (which is encouraged by the federal government via a system of credits to the federal tax rate). The specific rates will depend on the particular state of employment and each individual employer’s history. Employers who rarely lay off or fire employees get a favorable rate, but those who do not maintain a stable labor pool will find their rates adjusted to a higher level.
Like social security, the unemployment tax stops each year once a certain maximum income level is reached. In this text, assume the federal rate is one-half of one percent (0.5%), and the state rate is three percent (3%), on a maximum income of $10,000 per employee. Thus, assume the federal unemployment tax (FUTA) is capped at $50 per employee and the state unemployment tax (SUTA) is capped at $300.
Many employers will carry workers compensation insurance. The rules for this type of insurance vary from state to state. Generally, this type of insurance provides for payments to workers who sustain on-the-job injuries and shields the employer from additional claims. But, for companies that do not carry such insurance, the employer may have an unlimited exposure to claims related to work place injuries. The cost of this insurance can be very high for risky work, like construction.
Many employers will provide health care insurance and retirement plan contributions. These amounts can also be substantial, perhaps even exceeding the amounts contributed by employees on their own behalf.
Obviously, the employer’s cost of an employee goes well beyond the amount reported on the pay check. For many companies, the total cost of an employee can be 125% to 150% of the gross earnings. Of course, these added costs also need to be entered in the accounting records.
In preparing the entry it is assumed that (a) FUTA and SUTA bases had already been exceeded earlier in 20XX (hence the related amounts are zero), (b) the employer exactly matched employee contributions to insurance and retirement programs, and (c) the employer incurred workers' compensation insurance of $300. Following is the entry for I. M. Fictitious:
Shortly after the conclusion of a calendar year, an employer must review its employee records and prepare a summary wage and tax statement (commonly called a W-2). This information is furnished to each employee and the government. It helps employees accurately prepare their own annual federal and state income tax returns and allows the government to verify amounts reported by those individual taxpayers.
Accuracy is vital in payroll accounting. Oftentimes, a business may hire an outside firm that specializes in payroll management and accounting. The outside firm manages the payroll, recordkeeping, government compliance, timely processing of tax deposits, and the like.
When a business manages its own payroll, very accurate data must be maintained. Most firms will set up a separate payroll journal or database that tracks information about each employee, as well as in the aggregate. In addition, it is quite common to open a separate payroll bank account into which the gross pay is transferred and from which paychecks and tax payments are disbursed. This system provides an added control to make sure that employee funds are properly maintained, processed, and reconciled.
It is very important to know that the employer’s obligation to protect withheld taxes and make certain they are timely remitted to the government is taken very seriously. Employers who fail to do so are subject to harsh penalties for the obvious reason that the funds do not belong to the employer. Likewise, employees who participate in, or are aware of misapplication of such funds can expect serious legal repercussions. The government has made it very simple for employers to remit withheld amounts, as most commercial banks are approved to accept such amounts from employers. Online systems also allow easy funds transfer. The frequency of the required remittance is dependent upon the size of the employer and the total payroll.
Paid vacations are another element of compensation that many employees receive. In addition to paid vacations, employers may provide for other periods of compensated absences. Examples include sick leave, holidays, family emergency time, jury duty time, military reserve time, and so forth. Sometimes, these benefits accumulate with the passage of time, so that the benefit is a function of tenure with the company. To illustrate, a company may stipulate that one half-day of sick leave and one day of vacation time is accrued for each month of employment.
Because the cost of periods of compensated absence can become quite significant, it is imperative that such amounts be correctly measured and reported. Accounting rules provide that companies expense (debit) and provide a liability (credit) for such accumulated costs when specified conditions are present. Those conditions are that the accumulated benefit (1) relates to services already rendered, (2) is a right that vests or accumulates, (3) is probable to be paid to the employee, and (4) can be reasonably estimated. Vacation pay typically meets these conditions for accrual, while other costs depend upon the individual company’s policies and history.
It is common for a company to offer some form of retirement plan for its employees. Begin by noting that there are two broad types of pensions: defined contribution plans and defined benefit plans. With a defined contribution plan, an employer promises to make a periodic contribution (usually a set percentage of the employee’s salary with some matching portion also provided by the employee) into a separate pension fund account. After a minimum vesting period, the funds become the property of the employee for his or her benefit once they enter retirement. Prior to withdrawal, the funds might be invested in stocks, bonds, or other approved investments. The employee will receive the full benefit of the funds and the investment returns, usually withdrawing them gradually after retirement.
Defined contribution plans offer an important desirable feature for employers, in that their obligation is known and fixed. Further, the employer ordinarily gets a tax deduction for its contribution, even though the employee does not recognize that contribution as taxable income until amounts are withdrawn from the pension many years later. The company expenses the required periodic contribution as incurred. No further accounting on the corporate books is necessitated. The pension assets and obligations are effectively transferred to a separate pension trust, greatly simplifying the recordkeeping of the employer.
In stark contrast are defined benefit plans. With these plans the employer’s promise becomes more elaborate and its cost far more uncertain. For example, a company may offer annual pension payments equal to 2% per year of service times the final annual salary. So, a person who works 30 years and then retires may be eligible for continuing pay at 60% of his or her annual salary. These plans are fraught with uncertainty. How long will retirees live and draw benefits, how many years will employees work, how much will the annual salary be, and so on?
Actuaries are persons trained and skilled to make assessments about life expectancy and related workforce trends. They prepare estimates that are used by accountants to calculate annual pension expense for a defined benefit plan. Matching concepts expense this cost during the periods of active employee service, rather than periods of retirement. Some or all of the annual expense is funded by a transfer of money into a pension trust fund. Those funds are invested and eventually disbursed to retirees, but the company remains obligated for any shortfalls in the pension trust. If a company has failed to fund all the amounts expensed to date, or if the pension fund is “underfunded” relative to outstanding pension promises made, a pension liability is reported on the balance sheet. But, the bulk of the pension assets and obligations are carried on the books of the separate pension trust fund. Because of reporting complexities and actuarial risks, defined benefit pension plans are becoming less common.
Some companies provide retirees with health care coverage, prescription benefits, and life insurance. Matching principles again dictate that such costs be expensed during the period of time during which the employee is actively working to have these rights vest. As a result, companies will expense the estimated cost of post-retirement benefits over many years, creating an offsetting liability on the balance sheet.