What are Long-Term Assets

(Last Updated On: February 19, 2018)

Current Assets Versus Long-Term Assets

The difference between current and long term assets is that current assets are converted/used within a single operating cycle (inventory, work in progress, accounts receivable, etc), whereas long term assets are used for multiple operating cycles (machines, buildings, etc).

There are three types of long term assets: long term tangible assets, such as machines and buildings, long term intangible assets such as patents and trademarks and long term financial assets such as shares held in other companies. In this tutorial I focus on long term tangible assets. Many of the accounting principles discussed here can be applied to intangible assets. Accounting for financial assets however, has some distinct features. I intend to discuss accounting for (long term) financial assets in a separate tutorial at a future point in time.

Purchase (or development) of Long-Term Assets

First, it needs to be determined if accounting principles allow for the asset to be recognized. The accounting treatment under IFRS (and also under US GAAP) differs for tangible and intangible assets. The requirements for capitalizing self developed (as opposed to purchased) intangible assets are most restrictive. The rationale behind this is that the valuation for these assets is most uncertain. (If time permits, I hope to write several tutorials on IFRS.)

If accounting principles allow recognition of an asset, the next issue is which items can be included, and which items need to be expensed. The basic rule here is that – when recognizing the asset is allowed – all money that is spent to get the asset up and running is capitalized as part as the cost of the asset.

Depreciation Methods

During the economic lifetime the value of the asset is reduced (expensed). This expense is called depletion for natural resources, depreciation for other tangible long term assets, and amortization for intangible long term assets.

Although other methods exist, I consider the two most common depreciation methods: the straight line method and the declining balance method.

straight line depreciation

As the name suggests, the straight line method results in a fixed amount for each period of the asset’s economic life time. The depreciable amount is the amount that needs to be expensed in total, which is the cost minus the residual value. The residual value is the amount that the firm expects to receive when the asset is disposed of at the end of the economic lifetime. Thus, the yearly depreciation expense is the depreciable amount divided by the economic lifetime.

Depreciation is the decline in value of the asset. Instead of deducting depreciation from the asset’s T-account, it is common practice to create an additional T-account (called contra T-account) where the depreciation is added to. Thus, every year the depreciation is credited to this T-account. Technically, a T-account with a credit balance can be included on the debit side of the balance sheet. In that case, the sign flips. Thus, accumulated depreciation is subtracted from the cost, resulting in the ‘carrying value’, which is also called ‘net value’ or ‘book value’. (Presenting accumulated depreciation on the credit side would of course result in a balanced balance sheet. However, it would imply that accumulated depreciation is a liability, which it is not.)

the declining balance method

An alternative method is the declining balance method. Where the straight line method is a percentage of the depreciable amount, with the declining balance method the depreciation expense is a percentage of the book value of the asset. As the book value declines over time, so does the depreciation expense. In the year that applying this rule would result in a book value below the residual value, the firm switches to straight line deprecation for the remaining year(s).

The double declining balance is a special case of the declining balance method, where the percentage used is 200% divided by the economic lifetime.

Change in Estimates

It is possible that changes occur during the economic lifetime of the asset. It’s value may change, the economic lifetime may change, or the estimate of the residual value could be revised. 

When historic cost is the basis for valuation (which usually is the cast) and the fair value of the asset increases in value, no change is made to the value of the asset, nor to the depreciation schedule. However, under IFRS it is possible to opt for fair value valuation for long term assets. I intend to write a separate tutorial on this issue. However, when the fair value of the asset decreases below the book value of the asset, the asset needs to be written down to the lower fair value. This is the application of the ‘lower of cost or market’-rule.

When the economic lifetime or estimates of the residual value change, no correction is made to ‘catch up’ or undo past years’ depreciation. Instead, the depreciation schedule is adapted to fit the new economic lifetime and residual value.

Sale of Long-Term Assets

When the asset is disposed or sold, a gain or loss is realized.