Sucking the LIFO Out of Inventory

The government sees billions of dollars in potential tax revenue sitting on the shelves of company warehouses.

To understand the mismatch, consider how LIFO works: Say, for example, that a company has an industrial compressor in its inventory that it bought for $5,000. It sells the compressor for $5,500, and replaces it in inventory for $5,200. From an economic perspective, the profit is only $300, not the $500 difference between the historic and current price. LIFO allows companies to use that “last-in” price to record $300 in taxable income. The remaining $200 in income is deferred until the company shutters its business and is forced to liquidate the inventory, at which time it strips off years of “LIFO layers.” The $200 — the difference between the taxable income recorded under LIFO and another methodology — is referred to as the LIFO reserve.

In a liquidation, notes O’Neal’s Travis, the sell-off of old inventory generates revenue to pay the taxes. But if LIFO is simply repealed, he says, then deferred taxes will be due without the benefit of any additional revenue. “In effect, the repeal of LIFO is going after our equity,” the tax director says.

Under the Obama budget proposal plan, companies would be required to “true up” their retained earnings in the year they stop using LIFO, explains Jason Cuomo, a senior analyst with Moody’s Investors Service. They would then make annual cash tax payments on the profits stored in the LIFO reserve over a 10-year period, beginning in 2012.

Graybar’s D’Alessandro argues that LIFO accounting is a “timing issue,” rather than a tax gimmick, and emphasizes that LIFO accounting reverses itself when demand drops. “You burn through LIFO layers as you burn through your inventory,” explains D’Alessandro, who notes that Graybar reached lower-cost inventory layers last year as demand slowed. At that point, profits rose under LIFO accounting and the company had to pay more in taxes. The same is true when deflation sets in, says Scott Rabinowitz, a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’s national tax practice. As the price of replacement inventory drops, taxable income increases, and so does a company’s tax obligation.

A Cash-Flow Issue

Not all companies agree with the mismatch theory. Proponents of FIFO, who tend to be retailers and manufacturers of fast-moving inventory such as electronics or perishable goods, say FIFO better reflects the current value of inventories. For example, in December, packaging giant Pactiv Corp. switched from LIFO to FIFO, telling investors that the change provides “better matching of sales and expenses.” Officials at the company, which makes Hefty brand plastic bags, noted that this is particularly true during periods when the price of their primary raw material, resin, is volatile.

Under FIFO, they said, “the lag between resin-price changes and selling-price changes will be reduced by approximately two months.”

Moreover, not everyone agrees that LIFO elimination would be such a dire event for companies with slower-moving inventory. The elimination of LIFO “is a cash-flow issue,” argues Moody’s Cuomo, who co-authored a recent report on the subject. His report, which examined 176 companies rated by Moody’s that use LIFO, points out that larger companies with strong cash flows likely will weather the one-time charge of converting from LIFO to FIFO or another methodology without much problem (see the chart at the end of this article). That’s because for the largest companies, the charge represents a small percentage of their annual cash flow. However, smaller companies with high LIFO reserves and low cash flows could run into problems.

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