The term capital assets is used to describe assets that are used in operations and that have initial lives extending beyond a single reporting period. Capital assets may be either intangible (e.g., easements, water (rights) or tangible (e.g., land, buildings, building improvements, vehicles, machinery, equipment and infrastructure). It is incumbent upon public-sector managers to maintain adequate control over all of a government’s resources, including capital assets, to minimize the risk of loss or misuse.
As a practical application of the materiality principle, not all tangible capital-type items with useful lives extending beyond a single reporting period are required to be reported in a government’s statement of position. Items with extremely short useful lives (e.g., less than 2 years) or of small monetary value are properly reported as an "expense" or "expenditure" in the period in which they are acquired.
When outlays for capital-type items are, in fact, reported on the statement of position, they are said to be capitalized. The monetary criterion used to determine whether a given capital asset should be reported on the balance sheet is known as the capitalization threshold. A government may establish a single capitalization threshold for all of its capital assets, or it may establish different capitalization thresholds for different classes of capital assets.
Capitalization is, of its nature, primarily a financial reporting issue. That is, a government’s principal concern in establishing specific capitalization thresholds ought to be the anticipated information needs of the users of the government’s external financial reports. While it is essential to maintain control over all potentially capitalizable items, there exist much more efficient means than capitalization for accomplishing this objective in the case of a government’s smaller tangible capital-type items.1 Furthermore, practice has demonstrated that capital asset management systems that attempt to incorporate data on numerous smaller items are often costly and difficult to maintain and operate.
GFOA recommends that state and local governments consider the following guidelines in establishing capitalization thresholds:
- Potentially capitalizable items should only be capitalized only if they have an estimated useful life of at least two years following the date of acquisition;
- Capitalization thresholds are best applied to individual items rather than to groups of similar items (e.g., desks and tables), unless the effect of doing so would be to eliminate a significant portion of total capital assets (e.g., books of a library district);
- In no case should a government establish a capitalization threshold of less than $5,000 for any individual item;
- In establishing capitalization thresholds, governments that are recipients of federal awards should be aware of federal requirements that prevent the use of capitalization thresholds in excess of certain specified maximum amounts (i.e., currently $5,000) for purposes of federal reimbursement; and
- Governments should exercise control over potentially capitalizable items that fall under the operative capitalization threshold.2