What is a Write-Down?
A write-down is the accounting term used to describe a reduction in the book value of an asset due to economic or fundamental changes in the asset. A write-down is the opposite of a write-up.
How a Write-Down Works
A write-down can be processed whenever a firm readjusts their balance sheet numbers which typically happens when a company files their quarterly earnings.
Insurance companies often need to write down assets since they must maintain a certain stated level of capital compared to their portfolio of potential liabilities. For illiquid investments such as real estate, book value is calculated by analyzing current market conditions, taking into consideration rental rates, the values of similar buildings, as well as current interest rates. When preparing quarterly financial updates, insurance firms reevaluate the value of their real estate holdings. If market conditions change, the firm writes down the book value of the holding to adjust the value to current market conditions.
Thus a real estate write-down, in our example, can be caused by either a negative change in the overall macro environment, or a micro economic occurrence such as building deterioration.
What Write-Downs Matter
Changes in book values caused by write-downs were at the heart of financial company failures caused by the sub-prime crisis. When write-downs occurred, many financial firms needed to raise capital from other sources to maintain their minimum capital obligations.
As a result, companies that could not raise money by selling stock, new debt, or assets, were forced into bankruptcy or forced mergers when their assets could no longer cover their liabilities.