28 November 2010
Reality is fractal
Then you think, aha! within those swirls I've discovered a lower-level A and B, and between these two, anyway, there is a simple straight line. But when you make another zoom, you find it isn't so.
This truth pressed itself upon me recently when, for the sake of a quick paycheck, I agree to write a brief essay on "Accounting for Software Licenses." Can't be too complicated, right? So ... how does one account for software licenses?
Turns out there are swirls. First, do we want to talk about the accounting of the leesor or the lessee? From the point of view of the lessee, the payments it has to make on a regular basis (yearly? quarterly?) are treated, one might naturally suspect, as a liability on its balance sheet.
But maybe not. Is this a "capital lease" or an "operating lease"? If the former, then in general the lease is a liability for the borrower, and an asset for the lender. If it is an operating lease, though, it can be kept off-balance sheet which (many biz management types seem to think) is re-assuring to actual and potential investors. Are they right? Is it really re-assuring, or does the rational expectations theory rightly presume that the market sees through mere formalities?
Never mind all those squiggles and squirrels! What about the lessor's POV? Can't we at least achieve some clarity, some sort of straight line, there? No. Have I mentioned that reality is fractal?
In general, how a lessor treats a productive asset that it has lent out for the use of another will depend on whether the asset is classified as "direct financing" or as a "multiple-element arrangement." (There is a grey zone in between those two possibilities, and further swirls, but for my brief essay I ignored that zone.)
If a financing company buys software for me and lends it to me, and if that is the only thing it does -- if it doesn't promise any upgrades or trouble-shooting services, and it doesn't deliver same -- if in the words of one authority the lessor "has no involvement with the software that is inconsistent with being a lender" -- in that case, the lease is a loan, and my lease payments are a matter of paying off that loan. The accounting proceeds accordingly, with a "Lease Receivable" item on the vendor/lendor's balance sheet.
But if it does promise and deliver upgrades and the like, then this lease contract is a "mutliple-element arrangement," more akin to a sale than to a loan. It becomes necessary to distinguish and value the different elements of the deal. This is true, too, of the loan of tangible equipment (you might lease me a backhoe with servicing promises). But distinguishing the separate elements in a software contract is apparently especially tricky, and auditors will require vendor-specific objective evidence (VSOE) of the value of the different components.
Zoom in further, and try to grapple with what VSOE means, and what are the consequences when VSOE can't be produced, and you get yet further Mandelbrotian swirls within swirls.
And there is the additional complication that software often comes embedded in hardware -- the "appliance" model. So the question of distinguishing among the elements of the arrangement may include the complexity of distinguishing the valuing of the dance and the dancer.
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.