What is an Operating Lease?

An operating lease is simply a lease that does not give the lessee rights similar to those of an owner of the asset.

How Does an Operating Lease Work?

Let's assume Company XYZ needs a widget machine for its factory. The widget machine costs $1,000,000 to buy, but Company XYZ could also lease the widget machine for $2,000 a month instead. This certainly could preserve a considerable amount of cash for the company. If Company XYZ enters into an operating lease for the asset, it also will not assume any of the risks of ownership by leasing the machine rather than buying it. However, it will have to record all of the lease payments on its income statement (thereby reducing its net income) rather that placing the asset on its balance sheet and recognizing only depreciation on the income statement.

Why Does an Operating Lease Matter?

The buy-versus-lease question is one of the most common in the business world. There are considerable tax and income advantages and disadvantages on both sides, as there are for the operating-versus-capital lease decision.

The payments on an operating lease must be expensed, meaning the lease payments must be recorded on the income statement and thus reduce net income. The asset does not appear on the lessee's balance sheet in an operating lease. This is a different accounting treatment than what would be the case for a capital lease, whereby the lessee enjoys rights that are usually only reserved for someone who actually owns the asset (in that case, the lease payments are capitalized, meaning they appear on the balance sheet instead and thus do not affect net income).

There is certainly the temptation to structure a lease contract such that Company XYZ's lease payments are essentially a series of installments toward the purchase of the asset over time, thereby making Company XYZ the owner at the end of the lease term. But GAAP rules see through most schemes to make asset purchases look like leases. Thus, GAAP rules state that to determine whether the lease is an operating lease, the lease must not have any of these characteristics:

1. The life of the lease must not be longer than 75% of the life of the asset.

2. The lessor cannot transfer ownership of the asset to the lessee at the end of the lease term.

3. There cannot be an option to purchase the asset at a 'bargain price' at the end of the lease term.

4. The present value of the lease payments cannot exceed 90% of the fair market value of the asset.