Thus, the cost incurred to obtain property and equipment provides vital information about management policy and decision making. It also serves as the initial figure appearing on the balance sheet for any item classified in this manner. The buyer has voluntarily chosen to relinquish the specified amount of resources to gain the asset. After the date of acquisition, the reported balance will probably never again reflect fair value. Subsequently, for any of these operating assets that has a finite life (and most assets other than land do have finite lives), the matching principle necessitates that the historical cost be allocated to expense over the anticipated years of service. This expense is recognized systematically each period as the company utilizes the asset to generate revenue. Expenses are matched with revenues. For example, if equipment is used for ten years, all (or most) of its cost is assigned to expense over that period. This accounting is very similar to the handling of prepaid expenses such as rent as discussed in an earlier chapter. Cost is first recorded as an asset and then moved to expense over time in some logical fashion. At any point, the reported asset is the original cost less the portion of that amount that has been reclassified to expense.
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One important mechanical distinction does exist when comparing the accounting for prepayments and that used for property and equipment having a finite life. With a prepaid expense (such as rent), the asset is directly reduced over time as the cost is assigned to expense. Prepaid rent balances get smaller each day as the period of usage passes. In reporting property and equipment, the asset does not physically shrink. As the utility is consumed over time, buildings and equipment do not get smaller; they only get older. To reflect that reality, a separate accumulated depreciation account [1] is created to measure the total amount of the asset’s cost that has been expensed to date. Through this approach, information about the original cost continues to be available. For example, if equipment is reported as $30,000 and the related accumulated depreciation currently holds a balance of $10,000, the reader knows that the asset originally cost $30,000 but $10,000 of that amount has been moved to expense since the date of acquisition. For reporting purposes, accumulated depreciation is subtracted from the historical cost of the asset to arrive at the net figure to be shown on the balance sheet. The remaining cost-based amount is often referred to as the net book value of the asset. If cost is $30,000 and accumulated depreciation is $10,000, net book value of $20,000 appears in the financial statements. The nearly $93 billion net figure reported by Wal-Mart is the cost of its property and equipment that has not yet been assigned to expense. It is the historical cost of those assets (approximately $126 billion) less accumulated depreciation (almost $33 billion—the amount of the cost already recorded as an expense).
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