Reining In SPEs

New rules for special-purpose entities may result in bigger corporate balance sheets.

Got special-purpose entities? Get cover.

The off-balance-sheet structures that Enron executives apparently used to deceive shareholders and enrich themselves have become a scarlet letter in the capital markets. Just ask Adelphia Communications Corp. The cable-service provider’s credit rating was recently downgraded and its stock dropped by nearly 50 percent after it disclosed $2.7 billion in off-balance-sheet debt housed in so-called special-purpose entities (SPEs) but guaranteed by Adelphia. Even the stocks of such corporate giants as General Electric Co. and General Motors Corp., both of which make extensive use of SPEs in their finance operations, have been rattled by fears of hidden risks and liabilities not reflected in their financial statements. “With all the focus on SPEs, we realized we should provide more details about them to investors,” says GM spokesman Jerry Dubrowski.

Particularly when the Securities and Exchange Commission demands it. In January, the SEC issued new guidance on corporate disclosures of off-balance-sheet transactions in time for 2001 10(k) filings. Companies are now expected to address all such activities in one place and in language comprehensible to financial-statement users — no small feat, given the complicated contractual relationships that SPEs can often entail.

More important, by mid-May the Financial Accounting Standards Board is expected to propose new rules to ensure that unconsolidated SPEs are truly independent of their sponsoring companies. The likely means to achieve that will be an increase in the investment requirement of outside third parties from the current 3 percent. And in deference to outraged politicians and backpedaling regulators, FASB intends to expedite its usual process and issue final rules by September or earlier to take effect for fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2002.

It won’t be pretty. SPEs are not just the playthings of unscrupulous executives at high-flying companies; they are widely used by U.S. companies across a variety of industries for purposes that even FASB says are often legitimate. Financial-services providers use them to sell assets from their balance sheets to institutional investors and reduce their capital requirements. Large manufacturers use them to finance customer purchases. Pharmaceutical companies use them to create research-and-development joint ventures with biotech firms. And hundreds of companies use them to finance real estate through tax-friendly leasing transactions. Tougher rules on SPE consolidation could affect virtually every Fortune 500 company. “This is a very big deal,” says an attorney who specializes in the independent power production industry, which also makes extensive use of SPEs. “I can’t think of an industry that won’t be affected by this.”

The 10 Percent Solution

The effects will be easy enough to see. “Corporate balance sheets are going to be a lot bigger next year,” says Robert Willens, an accounting analyst with Lehman Brothers. Currently, the assets and liabilities of an SPE don’t have to be consolidated if an independent third party makes an investment of at least 3 percent of the entity’s total capital and exercises voting control over the SPE.

The 3 percent outside interest is supposed to guarantee that companies undertake transactions with SPEs as they would with any independent third party. In the leasing business, the 3 percent threshold is enough to ensure that SPEs won’t be manipulated by the sponsoring companies. That’s because the sponsors won’t make enough money to guarantee the 3 percent investment and thereby gain the ability to manipulate the SPE. For SPEs that house more lucrative and volatile assets, however, the 3 percent threshold may not be enough. According to the Enron-board-appointed Powers Committee, which investigated the company’s off-balance-sheet partnerships, Enron had agreed in advance to protect outside investors in the LJM partnerships against losses. That essentially gave the company free rein with the entities.

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