Comparison of Various Depreciation Methods

True Tamplin

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®
Updated on August 23, 2021

The below example compares the various depreciation methods. One of the most important points to note is that in all cases total depreciation expense over all 5 years is $36,000. As a consequence, the balance in the Accumulated Depreciation account at the end of the fifth year is also $36,000 in all cases. This shows that we are dealing with various ways to allocate the same depreciable cost of $36,000 and that each method results in a different expense pattern within the five-year period. These differences are significant and can have a great effect on earnings for each year.
For example, in the first year, the double-declining depreciation is $16,000, and depreciation under the units-of-production method is only $6,600. These differences tend to lessen in the middle years of the asset’s life and again increase in the last years of the asset’s life. However, in the last years, the differences reverse. That is, straight-line and units-of-production depreciation is greater than depreciation under either of the accelerated methods. Of course, the pattern under the units-of-production method could differ greatly in different situations.
Comparison of various depreciation methods

Comparison of Four Depreciation Methods

Comparison between four depreciation methods

Selecting a Depreciation Method for Financial Reporting Purposes

Because all of the four depreciation methods are generally accepted accounting methods, management has the option of selecting any of them for reporting purposes, in fact, it is possible to use one method to depreciate equipment and other method to depreciate buildings. All of these methods are used in practice. However, a recent survey of 600 companies reproduced below shows that the straight-line method is the most popular.
Chart of Major Companies using various depreciation methods
Theoretically, the best depreciation method is the one that allocates the cost of the individual asset to the years of its useful life in the same pattern as do the benefits or revenues that the asset produces. Because different assets have different revenue patterns, all of the methods are appropriate in specific circumstances.
The theoretical soundness of a depreciation method is not, however, an absolute requirement for its use. In choosing a particular method for financial reporting purposes, management is usually more concerned with practical reasons, such as simplicity and financial statement effects. To a large extent, this explains the popularity of straight-line depreciation. It is easy to compute and results in a constant expense spread over the asset’s useful life.
Because the choice of depreciation methods can have a significant effect on a firm’s financial statements, current accounting rules require that a firm disclose how it depreciates its assets. This disclosure is usually made in the footnote to the financial statements that summarizes the firm’s accounting policies. An excerpt from the footnote included in Safeway’s 2019 financial statements reads as follows:
Property and depreciation:
Property is stated at historical cost. Interest cost incurred in conjunction with construction in progress is capitalized. Depreciation is computed for financial reporting purposes on the straight-line method using the following lives:
Footnote for property and depreciation
Depreciation and amortization expense for the property of $293,732,000 in 2019, in 2018 and in 2017 included amortization of property under capital leases of $54,939,000, $55,188,000, and $54,447,000, respectively.

Choosing a Depreciation Method for Tax Purposes

The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 made substantial changes in the depreciation rules for tax purposes. Essentially, the traditional depreciation system was replaced by a new concept called the Accelerated Cost Recovery System (ACRS). In all but unusual circumstances, this method must be used for tax purposes. However, ACRS is not considered a generally accepted accounting principle and cannot be used for financial reporting purposes.
Under the ACRS, the cost of depreciable property is recovered over a 3-, 5-, 10- or 18-year period of time, depending on the nature of the asset. For example, mobiles, light trucks, and certain machinery and equipment have been assigned a three-year life, Most production line equipment, delivery trucks, office furniture, aircraft, and so forth were assigned a five-year life, Certain public utility property was assigned a 10-year life, and most real property such as buildings are now assigned an 18-year life. In addition to allowing a write-0ff over lives that in some cases are substantially shorter than economic lives, the ACRS incorporates the benefits of the accelerated-depreciation methods.
In order to determine ACRS depreciation for a particular asset, multiply the acquisition cost (residual value is not considered) of the property by a statutory percentage. This percentage depends on when the asset is purchased, its class life, and the number of years since the asset was placed in service. The relevant statutory percentages for tangible personal property such as equipment are reproduced below.

Accelerated-Recovery Table

Accelerated Recovery Table
To demonstrate the use of this table and how ACRS compares with depreciation for financial reporting purposes, assume that at the beginning of 2015 a company purchases a piece of equipment at a cost of $40,000. For tax purposes, the asset has an ACRS class life of 5 years, but management estimates that for financial reporting purposes its economic life is 8 years (a 12.5% rate). Depreciation expense for 2015, 2016, and 2017 for both tax and financial reporting purposes is calculated next.

Comparison of ACRS and Straight-Line Depreciation

Comparison between ACRS and Straight-line
Under the straight-line method, a full year’s depreciation was taken, because the asset was placed in service at the beginning of the year. However, for assets such as equipment, the ACRS table allows for only one-half of a year’s depreciation in the acquisition year regardless of when the asset is placed in service. The 15% rate is a half-year rate; therefore this rate is applied to the equipment even though it was purchased at the beginning of the year.
Clearly, the ACRS provides substantial tax benefits in the asset’s first years. That is, the firm’s taxable income and thus its tax payments are reduced when ACRS is used instead of straight-line. In the years 2020-2022, these benefits reverse. when the asset is still being depreciated for financial reporting purposes but no depreciation is being taken under ACRS. However, the fact that tax payments are being deferred until later years benefits the firm, as it is able to earn interest on the money that is saved in the early years.

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