If you’re based in the U.S. and about to go international, you’re probably wondering just how much accounting work is going to be needed to get compliant when looking at GAAP vs IFRS statements.
Don’t worry, it isn’t that bad.
There are a few key differences between the two accounting methods, so I’m going to make it as easy as possible to know what actually matters (aka, what you’d get audited for). Drawing on my background as an accountant for international businesses, I’ll explain the most important areas to pay attention to, where you need to change things around, and how to create new standards within your business.
GAAP vs IFRS: Why You Should Care
As we continue to navigate the 21st century, the landscape of business and finance is becoming increasingly global. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of Software as a Service (SaaS) companies, where the potential for international expansion is ever-present and, in theory, not that difficult.
But remember, I said “in theory”.
There are some challenges and, at the heart of them lies one fundamental question that every SaaS CFO needs to ask: What's the difference between GAAP and IFRS?
These two distinct standards, U.S. GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards), administered by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), respectively, shape how companies present their financial information.
In this global age, mastering these standards is no longer optional—it’s a strategic necessity (especially for SaaS companies with a borderless nature!).
Most online accounting software that operates in multiple countries will offer the ability to generate statements according to your choice of standard.
The Three Key Differences in GAAP vs IFRS
1. Revenue Recognition
Under GAAP: Revenue recognition hinges on a multi-element arrangement that allows SaaS companies to recognize revenue once each obligation is fulfilled. In the context of a SaaS company, these obligations could include the delivery of software licenses, updates, or post-contract customer support. This approach often results in a delay in recognizing revenue, as it is typically contingent on future events.
Under IFRS: A single-element approach is utilized, where revenue is recognized at a point in time (or over a specified period) based on the transfer of control. This method frequently leads to faster revenue recognition, presenting a very different financial picture.
Consider a SaaS company that offers software subscriptions with ongoing customer support. Under GAAP, the company might need to defer some revenue related to the support service until the service is provided. But under IFRS, depending on the terms of control transfer, the company might be able to recognize the total revenue upfront.
Why It Matters: This key difference impacts the portrayal of financial health to stakeholders and potential investors, meaning you could look more or less attractive to potential investors depending on the standard you’re using.
2. Development Costs
Under GAAP: Costs related to the research and development phase are expensed as they’re incurred. This means they directly impact the company's profit and loss statement, potentially resulting in a less rosy financial picture in the short term.
Under IFRS: More flexibility, allowing for the capitalization of development costs once the technological feasibility of the software product is established. These costs can then be spread out over the product's useful life, which can positively affect net income.
A SaaS company investing a substantial sum in a new software solution would really care about this difference. Under GAAP, these costs would be immediately reflected in the company's financial statement, potentially casting a shadow over its profitability. But under IFRS, the company would spread the costs over several periods, which could make the firm appear more financially healthy in the short term.
Why It Matters: Again, investors. This distinction influences net income representation, crucial for earning investor confidence.
Under GAAP: Leases are classified as either “operating” or “financial” leases, each with different reporting treatments. Operating leases, for instance, do not appear on the balance sheet, while financial (or capital) leases do.
Under IFRS: A single model approach is applied where, with few exceptions, all leases are recognized as financial leases. This creates an asset (the right to use the leased item) and a financial liability (the present value of lease payments).
Imagine a SaaS company leasing a sprawling data center. Under GAAP, this lease, if classified as an operating lease, could stay off the balance sheet. However, IFRS would place this lease squarely on the balance sheet as an asset and a liability.
Why It Matters: You guessed it - investors. This variance can significantly alter reported assets and liabilities, influencing investor analyses and relevant financial ratios.
Some Other Differences
FIFO for Life-O
There’s a difference in how LIFO (Last In, First Out) and FIFO (First In, First Out) are treated between the two standards.
Under GAAP: Both LIFO and FIFO inventory valuation methods are allowed. LIFO assumes that the most recently acquired items (last in) are sold first (first out). This can be beneficial for tax purposes, especially in times of inflation, as it results in a higher cost of goods sold (COGS) and a lower reported profit. FIFO, on the other hand, assumes that the oldest inventory items are sold first. This method can result in lower COGS and a higher reported profit.
Under IFRS: LIFO is not allowed to be used for inventory valuation. IFRS views LIFO as not representing the actual flow of inventory, and thus, not a good reflection of current cost in the income statement. Instead, IFRS encourages the use of FIFO or the weighted average cost method, both of which are considered to better match the actual flow of goods.
Write-Downs of Inventory and Long-lived Assets
If you’re in the U.S., accountants want you to be really sure before you write something down. If you’re international, you’re cut a bit more slack.
Under GAAP: If the market value of inventory falls below its cost, the inventory is written down to its market value. Once inventory has been written down, it cannot be written back up if its market value increases in a subsequent period. This is known as the "lower of cost or market" rule.
For long-lived assets, GAAP uses a two-step process to determine impairment. First, a recoverability test is performed to see if the carrying amount of the asset is recoverable from its undiscounted future cash flows. If it is not recoverable, an impairment loss is recognized based on the difference between the carrying amount and the fair value of the asset.
Under IFRS: Inventory is carried at the lower of cost or net realizable value (the estimated selling price in the ordinary course of business, minus the estimated costs of completion and the estimated costs necessary to make the sale). If the net realizable value increases in a subsequent period, the write-down can be reversed.
For long-lived assets, IFRS uses a one-step process for impairment. If there are indications of impairment, the carrying amount of the asset is compared with its recoverable amount (the higher of fair value minus costs to sell and value in use). If the carrying amount exceeds the recoverable amount, an impairment loss is recognized. Unlike GAAP, IFRS also allows for the reversal of an impairment loss for long-lived assets (other than goodwill) if there is a change in the estimates used to determine the asset's recoverable amount.
The GAAP-IFRS Convergence: Striving for Comparability
What about, instead of GAAP vs IFRS, we had GAAP plus IFRS?
The idea of GAAP and IFRS convergence has been floated for years. The goal? To enhance comparability of financial information across borders (and reduce instances of the exact headache you’re going through right now).
While complete convergence remains elusive, the FASB and IASB have been working to minimize differences in their reporting standards.
A case in point is the largely converged standards on revenue recognition - ASC 606 under GAAP and IFRS 15 under IFRS. Both are designed to enhance the comparability of revenue recognition practices across industries, geographies, and capital markets. Despite this, significant differences remain, such as the ones highlighted above.
The Strategic Imperative: From Local to Global
SaaS companies have the intrinsic advantage of easily crossing borders. However, with international expansion comes the challenge of adhering to international accounting standards. Here, the shift from rules-based GAAP to principles-based IFRS can be a significant hurdle. This shift demands more judgment and interpretation, requiring CFOs to have a thorough understanding of the underlying principles of IFRS.
Whether it's making sense of how inventory valuation affects the balance sheet or how the treatment of intangible assets influences the income statement, or even how accounting for leases can affect cash flow, these standards form the fabric of your financial storytelling. They impact everything from your company’s liquidity to its market value.
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