Application of critical accounting policies

General

We prepare our Consolidated Financial Statements in accordance with U.S. GAAP and present the same in United States dollars unless otherwise stated.

The preparation of our financial statements requires us to make estimates and judgments that affect the reported amounts of assets, liabilities, revenues and expenses and the related disclosure of contingent assets and liabilities. We evaluate our estimates on an ongoing basis, including, but not limited to, those related to: costs expected to be incurred to complete projects; costs of product guarantees and warranties; provisions for bad debts; recoverability of inventories, investments, fixed assets, goodwill and other intangible assets; the fair values of assets and liabilities assumed in business combinations; income tax related expenses and accruals; provisions for restructuring; gross profit margins on long-term construction-type contracts; pensions and other postretirement benefit assumptions, and contingencies and litigation. We base our estimates on historical experience and on various other assumptions that we believe to be reasonable under the circumstances, the results of which form the basis for making judgments about the carrying values of assets and liabilities that are not readily apparent from other sources. Actual results may differ from our estimates and assumptions.

We deem an accounting policy to be critical if it requires an accounting estimate to be made based on assumptions about matters that are highly uncertain at the time the estimate is made and if different estimates that reasonably could have been used, or if changes in the accounting estimates that are reasonably likely to occur periodically, could materially impact our Consolidated Financial Statements. We also deem an accounting policy to be critical when the application of such policy is essential to our ongoing operations. We believe the following critical accounting policies require us to make difficult and subjective judgments, often as a result of the need to make estimates regarding matters that are inherently uncertain. These policies should be considered when reading our Consolidated Financial Statements.

Revenue recognition

We generally recognize revenues for the sale of goods when persuasive evidence of an arrangement exists, delivery has occurred, the price is fixed or determinable, and collectability is reasonably assured. With regards to the sale of products, delivery is not considered to have occurred, and therefore no revenues are recognized, until the customer has taken title to the products and assumed the risks and rewards of ownership of the products specified in the purchase order or sales agreement. Generally, the transfer of title and risks and rewards of ownership are governed by the contractually-defined shipping terms. We use various International Commercial shipping terms (as promulgated by the International Chamber of Commerce) such as Ex Works (EXW), Free Carrier (FCA) and Delivered Duty Paid (DDP). Subsequent to delivery of the products, we generally have no further contractual performance obligations that would preclude revenue recognition.

Revenues under long-term construction-type contracts are generally recognized using the percentage-of-completion method of accounting. We principally use the cost-to-cost method to measure progress towards completion on contracts. Under this method, progress of contracts is measured by actual costs incurred in relation to management’s best estimate of total estimated costs, which are reviewed and updated routinely for contracts in progress. The cumulative effects of such adjustments are reported in the current period. The percentage-of-completion method of accounting involves the use of assumptions and projections, principally relating to future material, labor and overhead costs. As a consequence, there is a risk that total contract costs will exceed those we originally estimated and the margin will decrease. This risk increases if the duration of a contract increases because there is a higher probability that the circumstances upon which we originally developed estimates will change, resulting in increased costs that we may not recover. Factors that could cause costs to increase include:

  • unanticipated technical problems with equipment supplied or developed by us which may require us to incur additional costs to remedy,
  • changes in the cost of components, materials or labor,
  • difficulties in obtaining required governmental permits or approvals,
  • project modifications creating unanticipated costs,
  • suppliers’ or subcontractors’ failure to perform,
  • penalties incurred as a result of not completing portions of the project in accordance with agreed-upon time limits, and
  • delays caused by unexpected conditions or events.

Changes in our initial assumptions, which we review on a regular basis between balance sheet dates, may result in revisions to estimated costs, current earnings and anticipated earnings. We recognize these changes in the period in which the changes in estimates are determined. By recognizing changes in estimates cumulatively, recorded revenue and costs to date reflect the current estimates of the stage of completion of each project. Additionally, losses on long-term contracts are recognized in the period when they are identified and are based upon the anticipated excess of contract costs over the related contract revenues.

Short-term construction-type contracts, or long-term construction-type contracts for which reasonably dependable estimates cannot be made or for which inherent hazards make estimates difficult, are accounted for under the completed-contract method. Revenues under the completed-contract method are recognized upon substantial completion – that is: acceptance by the customer, compliance with performance specifications demonstrated in a factory acceptance test or similar event.

For non construction-type contracts that contain customer acceptance provisions, revenue is deferred until customer acceptance occurs or we have demonstrated the customer-specified objective criteria have been met or the contractual acceptance period has lapsed.

Revenues from service transactions are recognized as services are performed. For long-term service contracts, revenues are recognized on a straight-line basis over the term of the contract or, if the performance pattern is other than straight-line, as the services are provided. Service revenues reflect revenues earned from our activities in providing services to customers primarily subsequent to the sale and delivery of a product or complete system. Such revenues consist of maintenance-type contracts, field service activities that include personnel and accompanying spare parts, and installation and commissioning of products as a stand-alone service or as part of a service contract.

Revenues for software license fees are recognized when persuasive evidence of a non-cancelable license agreement exists, delivery has occurred, the license fee is fixed or determinable, and collection is probable. In software arrangements that include rights to multiple software products and/or services, the total arrangement fee is allocated using the residual method, under which revenue is allocated to the undelivered elements based on vendor-specific objective evidence (VSOE) of fair value of such undelivered elements and the residual amounts of revenue are allocated to the delivered elements. Elements included in multiple element arrangements may consist of software products, maintenance (which includes customer support services and unspecified upgrades), hosting, and consulting services. VSOE is based on the price generally charged when an element is sold separately or, in the case of an element not yet sold separately, the price established by authorized management, if it is probable that the price, once established, will not change once the element is sold separately. If VSOE does not exist for an undelivered element, the total arrangement fee will be taken to revenue over the life of the contract or upon delivery of the undelivered element.

We offer multiple element arrangements to meet our customers’ needs. These arrangements may involve the delivery of multiple products and/or performance of services (such as installation and training) and the delivery and/or performance may occur at different points in time or over different periods of time. If certain criteria are met, we allocate revenues to each delivery of product or performance of service based on the individual elements’ relative fair value. A hierarchy of selling prices is used to determine the selling price of each specific deliverable that includes vendor-specific objective evidence (if available), third-party evidence (if vendor-specific evidence is not available), or estimated selling price if neither of the first two are available. The estimated selling prices reflect our best estimate of what the selling prices of elements would be if the elements were sold on a stand-alone basis. Revenue is allocated between the elements of an arrangement consideration at the inception of the arrangement. Such arrangements generally include industry-specific performance and termination provisions, such as in the event of substantial delays or non-delivery.

Revenues are reported net of customer rebates and similar incentives. Taxes assessed by a governmental authority that are directly imposed on revenue-producing transactions between us and our customers, such as sales, use, value-added and some excise taxes are presented on a net basis (excluded from revenues).

These revenue recognition methods require the collectability of the revenues recognized to be reasonably assured. When recording the respective accounts receivable, allowances are calculated to estimate those receivables that will not be collected. These reserves assume a level of default based on historical information, as well as knowledge about specific invoices and customers. The risk remains that a different number of defaults will occur than originally estimated. As such, the amount of revenues recognized might exceed or fall below that which will be collected, resulting in a change in earnings in the future. The risk of deterioration is likely to increase during periods of significant negative industry, economic or political trends.

As a result of the above policies, judgment in the selection and application of revenue recognition methods must be made.

Contingencies

As more fully described in the section entitled “Environmental liabilities” and in “Note 15 Commitments and contingencies” to our Consolidated Financial Statements, we are subject to proceedings, litigation or threatened litigation and other claims and inquiries related to taxes other than income tax, environmental, labor, product, regulatory and other matters. We are required to assess the likelihood of any adverse judgments or outcomes to these matters, as well as potential ranges of probable losses. A determination of the provision required, if any, for these contingencies is made after analysis of each individual issue, often with assistance from both internal and external legal counsel and technical experts. The required amount of a provision for a contingency of any type may change in the future due to new developments in the particular matter, including changes in the approach to its resolution.

We record provisions for our contingent obligations when it is probable that a loss will be incurred and the amount can be reasonably estimated. Any such provision is generally recognized on an undiscounted basis using our best estimate of the amount of loss incurred or at the lower end of an estimated range when a single best estimate is not determinable. In some cases, we may be able to recover a portion of the costs relating to these obligations from insurers or other third parties; however, we record such amounts only when it is probable that they will be collected.

We provide for anticipated costs for warranties when we recognize revenues on the related products or contracts. Warranty costs include calculated costs arising from imperfections in design, material and workmanship in our products. We generally make individual assessments on contracts with risks resulting from order-specific conditions or guarantees and assessments on an overall, statistical basis for similar products sold in larger quantities. There is a risk that actual warranty costs may exceed the amounts provided for, which would result in a deterioration of earnings in the future when these actual costs are determined.

We may have a legal obligation to perform environmental clean-up activities as a result of the normal operation of our business or have other asset retirement obligations. In some cases, the timing or the method of settlement, or both are conditional upon a future event that may or may not be within our control, but the underlying obligation itself is unconditional and certain. We recognize a provision for these and other asset retirement obligations when a liability for the retirement or clean-up activity has been incurred and a reasonable estimate of its fair value can be made. These provisions are initially recognized at fair value, and subsequently adjusted for accrued interest and changes in estimates. Provisions for environmental obligations are not discounted to their present value when the timing of payments cannot be reasonably estimated.

Pension and postretirement benefits

As more fully described in “Note 17 Employee benefits” to our Consolidated Financial Statements, we have a number of defined benefit pension and other postretirement plans and recognize an asset for a plan’s overfunded status or a liability for a plan’s underfunded status in our Consolidated Balance Sheets. We measure such a plan’s assets and obligations that determine its funded status as of the end of the year.

We recognize actuarial gains and losses gradually over time. Any cumulative unrecognized actuarial gain or loss that exceeds 10 percent of the greater of the present value of the projected benefit obligation (PBO) and the fair value of plan assets is recognized in income over the expected average remaining working lives of the employees participating in the plan. Otherwise, the actuarial gain or loss is not recognized.

We use actuarial valuations to determine our pension and postretirement benefit costs and credits. The amounts calculated depend on a variety of key assumptions, including discount rates, mortality rates and expected return on plan assets. Under U.S. GAAP, we are required to consider current market conditions in making these assumptions. In particular, the discount rates are reviewed annually based on changes in long-term, highly-rated corporate bond yields. Decreases in the discount rates result in an increase in the PBO and in pension costs. Conversely, an increase in the discount rates results in a decrease in the PBO and in pension costs. The mortality assumptions are reviewed annually by management. Decreases in mortality rates result in an increase in the PBO and in pension costs. Conversely, an increase in mortality rates results in a decrease in the PBO and in pension costs.

Holding all other assumptions constant, a 0.25 percentage point decrease in the discount rate would have increased the PBO related to our pension plans by approximately $307 million, while a 0.25 percentage point increase in the discount rate would have decreased the PBO related to our pension plans by approximately $290 million.

The expected return on plan assets is reviewed regularly and considered for adjustment annually based on current and expected asset allocations and represents the long-term return expected to be achieved. Decreases in the expected return on plan assets result in an increase to pension costs. An increase or decrease of 0.25 percent in the expected long-term rate of asset return would have decreased or increased, respectively, the net periodic benefit cost in 2011 by approximately $22 million.

The funded status, which can increase or decrease based on the performance of the financial markets or changes in our assumptions, does not represent a mandatory short-term cash obligation. Instead, the funded status of a pension plan is the difference between the PBO and the fair value of the plan assets. At December 31, 2011, our pension plans were $950 million underfunded compared to an underfunding of $327 million at December 31, 2010. Our other postretirement plans were underfunded by $260 million and $214 million at December 31, 2011 and 2010, respectively.

We have multiple non-pension postretirement benefit plans. Our health care plans are generally contributory with participants’ contributions adjusted annually. For purposes of estimating our health-care costs, we have assumed health-care cost increases to be 9 percent per annum for 2012, gradually declining to 5 percent per annum by 2028 and to remain at that level thereafter.

Income taxes

In preparing our Consolidated Financial Statements, we are required to estimate income taxes in each of the jurisdictions in which we operate. Tax expense from continuing operations is reconciled to the weighted-average global tax rate, rather than to the Swiss domestic statutory tax rate, as i) the parent company of the ABB Group, ABB Ltd, is domiciled in Switzerland. Income which has been generated in jurisdictions outside of Switzerland (hereafter “foreign jurisdictions”) and has already been subject to corporate income tax in those foreign jurisdictions is, to a large extent, tax exempt in Switzerland. Therefore, generally no or only limited Swiss income tax has to be provided for on the repatriated earnings of foreign subsidiaries. There is no requirement in Switzerland for a parent company of a group to file a tax return of the group determining domestic and foreign pre-tax income, and ii) our consolidated income from continuing operations is predominantly earned outside of Switzerland, and therefore corporate income tax in foreign jurisdictions largely determines our global tax rate.

We account for deferred taxes by using the asset and liability method. Under this method, we determine deferred tax assets and liabilities based on temporary differences between the financial reporting and the tax bases of assets and liabilities. Deferred tax assets and liabilities are measured using the enacted tax rates and laws that are expected to be in effect when the differences are expected to reverse. We recognize a deferred tax asset when it is more likely than not that the asset will be realized. We regularly review our deferred tax assets for recoverability and establish a valuation allowance based upon historical losses, projected future taxable income and the expected timing of the reversals of existing temporary differences. To the extent we increase or decrease this allowance in a period, we recognize the change in the allowance within “Provision for taxes” in the Consolidated Income Statements unless the change relates to discontinued operations, in which case the change is recorded in “Income from discontinued operations, net of tax.” Unforeseen changes in tax rates and tax laws, as well as differences in the projected taxable income as compared to the actual taxable income, may affect these estimates.

Certain countries levy withholding taxes, dividend distribution taxes or additional corporate income taxes (hereafter “withholding taxes”) on dividend distributions. Such taxes cannot always be fully reclaimed by the shareholder, although they have to be declared and withheld by the subsidiary. Switzerland has concluded double taxation treaties with many countries in which we operate. These treaties either eliminate or reduce such withholding taxes on dividend distributions. It is our policy to distribute retained earnings of subsidiaries, in so far as such earnings are not permanently reinvested or no other reasons exist that would prevent the subsidiary from distributing them. No deferred tax liability is set up, if retained earnings are considered as permanently reinvested, and used for financing current operations as well as business growth through working capital and capital expenditure in those countries.

We operate in numerous tax jurisdictions and, as a result, are regularly subject to audit by tax authorities. We provide for tax contingencies, including potential tax audits, on the basis of the technical merits of the contingency, including applicable tax law, OECD guidelines, as well as on items relating to potential audits by tax authorities based on our evaluations of facts and circumstances. Changes in the facts and circumstances could result in a material change to the tax accruals. We provide for tax contingencies whenever it is deemed more likely than not that a tax asset has been impaired or a tax liability has been incurred for events such as tax claims or changes in tax laws. Although we believe that our tax estimates are reasonable and that appropriate tax reserves have been made, the final determination of tax audits and any related litigation could be different than that which is reflected in our income tax provisions and accruals.

An estimated loss from a tax contingency must be accrued as a charge to income if it is more likely than not that a tax asset has been impaired or a tax liability has been incurred and the amount of the loss can be reasonably estimated. We apply a two-step approach to recognize and measure uncertainty in income taxes. The first step is to evaluate the tax position for recognition by determining if the weight of available evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the position will be sustained on audit, including resolution of related appeals or litigation processes, if any. The second step is to measure the tax benefit as the largest amount which is more than 50 percent likely of being realized upon ultimate settlement. The required amount of provisions for contingencies of any type may change in the future due to new developments.

Business combinations

The amount of goodwill initially recognized in a business combination is based on the excess of the purchase price of the acquired company over the fair value of the assets acquired and liabilities assumed. The determination of these fair values requires us to make significant estimates and assumptions. For instance, when assumptions with respect to the timing and amount of future revenues and expenses associated with an asset are used to determine its fair value, but the actual timing and amount differ materially, the asset could become impaired. In some cases, particularly for large acquisitions, we engage independent third-party appraisal firms to assist in determining the fair values.

Critical estimates in valuing certain intangible assets include but are not limited to: future expected cash flows of the acquired business, brand awareness and market position, and discount rates.

The fair values assigned to the intangible assets acquired are described in “Note 3 Acquisitions, increases in controlling interests and divestments” as well as “Note 11 Goodwill and other intangible assets,” to our Consolidated Financial Statements.

Goodwill and other intangible assets

We review goodwill for impairment annually as of October 1, or more frequently if events or circumstances indicate the carrying value may not be recoverable. We perform a two-step impairment test on a reporting unit level.

Our reporting units are the same as our divisions for Power Systems, Discrete Automation and Motion, and Low Voltage Products. For Power Products and Process Automation, we determined the reporting units to be one level below the division, as the different products produced or services provided by these divisions do not share sufficiently similar economic characteristics to permit testing of goodwill on a total operating segment level. In the case of Power Products, there are separate reporting units based on the category of product produced – High-Voltage Products, Medium-Voltage Products and Transformers. In the case of Process Automation, we have determined that there are two reporting units, the Turbocharger product business and the remainder of Process Automation.

In the first step of the impairment test, we compare the fair value of each reporting unit to its carrying value. The fair value of each reporting unit is calculated using an income approach, whereby the fair value is calculated based on the present value of future cash flows, applying a discount rate that represents our weighted-average cost of capital. If the fair value of the reporting unit exceeds the carrying value of the net assets assigned to that unit, goodwill is not impaired and no further testing is performed. If the carrying value of a reporting unit is zero or negative, we additionally assess the likelihood that goodwill is impaired. On October 1, 2011, none of our goodwill reporting units had a carrying value that was zero or negative.

The future cash flows are based on approved business plans for the reporting units which currently cover a period of four years plus a terminal value. The future cash flows require significant estimates and judgments involving variables such as future sales volumes, sales prices, production and other operating costs, capital expenditures, and other economic factors. The post-tax weighted-average cost of capital, of currently 9 percent, is based on variables such as the risk-free rate derived from the yield of 10-year U.S. treasury bonds as well as an ABB specific risk premium. The terminal value growth rate is assumed to be 1 percent. The mid-term tax rate used in the test is currently 27 percent.

We assess the reasonableness of the fair value calculations of our reporting units by reconciling the sum of the fair values for all our reporting units to our total market capitalization. On October 1, 2011, the calculated fair values for each of our reporting units exceeded their respective carrying values by at least 250 percent and we concluded that none was “at risk” of failing the goodwill impairment test. Consequently, the second step of the impairment test was not performed. The assumptions used in the fair value calculation are challenged each year (through the use of sensitivity analysis) to determine the impact on the resulting fair value of the reporting units. Our sensitivity analysis in 2011 showed no significant change in fair values if the assumptions change. A 1 percentage-point increase in the discount rate would reduce the calculated fair values by approximately 12 percent. A 1 percentage-point decrease in the terminal value growth rate would reduce the calculated fair values by approximately 9 percent.

However, if the carrying value of the net assets assigned to the reporting unit were to exceed its fair value, then we would perform the second step of the impairment test to determine the implied fair value of the reporting unit’s goodwill and compare it to the carrying value of the reporting unit’s goodwill. If the carrying value of a reporting unit’s goodwill were to exceed its implied fair value, then we would record an impairment loss equal to the difference. Any goodwill impairment losses would be recorded as a separate line item in the income statement in continuing operations, unless related to a discontinued operation, in which case the losses would be recorded in “Income from discontinued operations, net of tax.” There were no goodwill impairment charges in 2011, 2010 and 2009.

We review intangible assets for recoverability whenever events or changes in circumstances indicate that the carrying amount may not be recoverable upon the occurrence of certain triggering events, such as a decision to divest a business or projected losses of an entity. We record impairment charges in “Other income (expense), net,” in our Consolidated Income Statements, unless they relate to a discontinued operation, in which case the charges are recorded in “Income from discontinued operations, net of tax.”

Cash flow models used in evaluating impairments are dependent on a number of factors including estimates of future cash flows and other variables and require that we make significant estimates and judgments, involving variables such as sales volumes, sales prices, sales growth, production and operating costs, capital expenditures, market conditions, and other economic factors. Further, discount rates used in discounted cash flow models to calculate fair values require the determination of variables such as the risk-free rates and equity market risk premiums. We base our fair value estimates on assumptions we believe to be reasonable, but which are inherently uncertain. Actual future results may differ from those estimates.

Financial review

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