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Impairment occurs when a business asset suffers a depreciation in fair market value in excess of the book value of the asset on the business' financial statements. Under the U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, assets that are considered "impaired" must be recognized as a loss on a business' income statement.

What Is Impairment Loss?

The technical definition of impairment loss is a decrease in net carrying value, the acquisition cost minus depreciation, of an asset that is greater than the future undisclosed cash flow of the same asset. An impairment occurs when assets are sold or abandoned because the company no longer expects them to benefit long-run operations. This is different from a write-down, though impairment losses often result in a tax deferral for the asset. Depending on the type of asset being impaired, stockholders of a publicly held company may also lose equity in their shares, which results in a lower debt-to-equity ratio.

Calculating Impairment Loss

The first step is to identify the factors that lead to the asset's impairment. Some factors may include changes in market conditions, new legislation or regulatory enforcement, turnover in the workforce or decreased asset functionality due to aging. In some circumstances, the asset itself may be functioning as well as ever, but new technology or new techniques may cause the fair market value of the asset to drop significantly.

Fair market calculation is key; asset impairment cannot be recognized without a good approximation of fair market value. Fair market value is the price the asset would fetch if it was sold on the market. This is sometimes described as the future cash flow the asset would expect to generate in continued business operations. Another term for this value is "recoverable amount." Once the fair market value is assigned, it is then compared to the carrying value of the asset as represented on the business' financial statements. Carrying value does not need to be recalculated at this time since it exists in previous accounting records. If the calculated costs of holding the asset exceed the calculated fair market value, the asset is considered to be impaired. If the asset in question is going to be disposed of, the costs associated with the disposal must be added back into the net of the future net value less the carrying value.

Impairment losses are either recognized through the cost model or the revaluation model, depending on whether the debited amount was changed through the new, adjusted fair market valuation described above. Even when impairment results in a small tax benefit for the company, the realization of impairment is bad for the company as a whole. It usually represents the need for an increased reinvestment.

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