SYNOPSIS

Proposed changes by the FASB and the IASB to lease accounting standards will substantially change the accounting for operating leases by requiring the capitalization of future lease payments. We consider the impact of these changes on firms' debt covenants by examining the frequency of income-statement- versus balance-sheet-based accounting ratios in debt covenants of firms in high and low Off Balance Sheet (OBS) lease industries. Based on debt contracts from the 1996–2009 period, our results provide evidence that lenders focus on balance sheet (income statement) ratios in designing debt covenants for borrowers in low (high) OBS lease industries. Further, the use of balance-sheet- (income-statement-) based covenants falls (rises) faster in high OBS lease industries than in low OBS lease industries as the use of OBS leasing increases. This evidence indicates that OBS operating leases influence lenders' use of accounting information in covenants, suggesting that creditors consider the impact of OBS leases when structuring debt agreements. These results also suggest that the proposed capitalization of OBS leases may not result in firms violating loan covenants but will make the balance sheet a more complete source of information for debt contracting by removing the need for constructive capitalization of OBS leases.

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