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The business of barter: what an accountant should know about it.

In today's business world, barter, one of the oldest forms of trade, has been transformed into a sophisticated way of doing business. As a result, barter exchange networks, the clearinghouses for those wishing to barter, have flourished. And as more businesses barter, it becomes increasingly important for CPAs to understand how such transactions work--especially the tax ramifications--so they can advise their clients or employers.

What are the mechanics of barter in today's business world? How should you handle a company's barter records at tax time? How do you tell who can benefit most from the practice? Read on.


Businesses are discovering that barter not only has financial advantages but it has marketing benefits as well. Barter brings in new business that could never be acquired in any other way. And as a bonus, there are no cash expenditures for this kind of marketing.

According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), an international organization that coordinates the many barter exchange networks around the world, the dollar value of domestic business-to-business barter transactions for the past 10 years has grown at an annual rate of more than 15%.

To understand how barter works, first consider a "direct" barter transaction: I perform a service for you and you pay me with your product or service. This serves each of us well if each needs what the other is selling, both products are of equal value and both represent a business expense. But because it's usually difficult to get such a match--where the two businesses need equal amounts of each other's product--the opportunities for such direct barter transactions are limited. That's where a barter exchange network comes in. It can smooth out transactions that otherwise wouldn't be possible. The network deals in units of currency called trade dollars. The goods and services of one company in the network are exchanged for trade dollars that can be used to purchase the goods and services of any other company in the network. The network functions as a recordkeeper, sending each client a monthly statement and charging a fee--usually 5% to 7%--for each side of a transaction.

Each company in the network is assigned a broker, who notifies clients of new products and services and searches out new ones on request. The larger barter exchange networks have thousands of clients, making them a viable source for many business needs, such as office equipment and supplies, printing, advertising, cleaning and maintenance services, professional services and travel and entertainment (T&E).


The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 classifies barter exchange networks as brokerages, so they are required to file 1099-B forms listing the sales of client companies. Just as in the case of a stock brokerage, the barter exchange sends a copy to each client for use in tax preparation.

All barter income is on the cash basis. Perhaps the most important barter accounting concept is that the IRS treats barter transactions as income received for both accrual-basis and cash-basis clients. The value of trade dollars received must be included in gross income for the tax year in which they are credited to the client's account. Since tax is due on this income in the year it accrues, companies that are profitable should avoid having unspent trade dollars at the end of the fiscal year. This is not a concern during unprofitable years. As long as barter income does not put the company into a profit situation, it will not be taxed. In the event of year-end excess barter credit, a network can arrange tax-deductible, charitable contributions using barter.

Barter can be used as compensation, too. A company can give the bartered goods or services as a bonus or as part of a compensation package--without tapping cash. Many companies conduct barter bonus or sales incentive programs, using everything from restaurant certificates to resort trips.

Just as business expenses covered through barter are deductible to the same extent as cash, barter used as compensation is subject to personal taxes. Barter used as a bonus or compensation for an independent contractor must be included on the contractor's 1099 as nonemployee compensation, and all barter compensation for employees must be taken into account on their W-2s. Barter compensation is subject to federal and state withholding, FICA, FUTA and SUTA. Taxes, of course, must be paid in cash.


Accountants can advise clients to use barter to achieve specific business goals, including

* Cash conservation. Paying for business expenses with trade dollars leaves more cash available for the payment of strictly cash expenses.

* Barter lines of credit. Barter can be particularly useful when a business needs to borrow money to relocate, expand or launch a marketing program. A barter line of credit may be easier to get than bank credit because barter exchange networks look at a company's capacity to pay back through demand in the network rather than through traditional collateral. Many of the products and services associated with moving, remodeling or marketing are available in barter exchange networks. Interest on barter lines of credit is paid in trade dollars.

* Marketing advantage. Because barter purchases represent lower out-of-pocket cash costs, trade dollars often can be earned with little increase in overhead and without advertising or marketing expense.

A barter network keeps clients informed of new products and services available for barter. Some networks hold events such as holiday shows, where clients have an opportunity to meet each other and examine each other's products or services.

A further advantage of barter arises directly from the makeup of barter exchange networks. Because radio, television and print media companies can run additional advertising spots or ads with little increase in overhead, they often participate in exchange networks. This means network clients can finance ad campaigns by paying with their own products or services.

* Help with collection. Businesses can use barter to get value out of otherwise uncollectible debts. Instead of chasing cash, which might be nonexistent, the creditor can give the debtor company the option to pay with its product or service. That product or service is placed in the barter exchange network and its value in trade dollars is transferred to the creditor, who can spend it in the network. A company also can use barter to pay a debt by offering to transfer credit it has earned to a creditor.


Theoretically, any company can barter to its advantage if the network offers products or services the company requires and if there is a demand for the company's products or services in the network. Some companies may be particularly well suited to barter; the best candidates are those with

* High T&E costs. Restaurants, hotels, stadiums and even some airlines barter because they have excess capacity in the form of empty seats and rooms that can be traded for products and services for which they would normally pay cash. However, T&E taxes and gratuities must be paid in cash. Conversely, barter exchange network clients with high T&E expenses can benefit because of the number of travel and hospitality choices available. This includes companies that offer travel incentives to high performers.

* Products and services needed by hospitality firms. Companies that sell or repair furniture, plumbing, air-conditioning and heating systems, and those that offer cleaning, painting and other services needed by restaurants and hotels, find their products and services are in high demand in the network.

* Excess inventory or capacity. A company with excess inventory should consider barter before liquidation because barter offers the opportunity to sell at full price. A plumbing wholesaler with 500 faucets might earn trade dollars from a Caribbean resort that would happily take such an item in quantity in exchange for vacant rooms that still another client in the network might use for a company retreat. Companies with excess capacity are barter candidates because capacity can be turned into extra business--business that costs the company only the direct costs of producing their goods and services.

* Seasonal fluctuations. For some companies, barter may not be beneficial at certain times of the year. A furrier, for example, may be too busy in the fall and winter seasons, but during the slow spring and summer, when inventory still on hand is moving slowly and cash flow is light, barter business probably would be welcomed.

* A new product or service. Barter can be used in several ways to lower the risk of introducing a new product or service--in test marketing, for example--because it costs nothing in promotional expense other than barter exchange fees. In addition, the direct cost of promoting a new product can be offset by trading the product or service for advertising through the network.

Understanding the uses of barter and which clients can benefit from it improves accountants' adviser role. The CPA with clients that have decided to use barter should advise them to limit barter income to the extent of their ability to spend the trade dollars they earn. Companies new to barter usually find it helpful to begin slowly, to get a feel for the ebb and flow of trade dollars.

Clients considering barter should be sure the prospective barter exchange network is a member of IRTA, which sets a high standard of business and ethical conduct for its members and is composed of more than 250 companies. The client should seek a stable network--one that has been in business a number of years and can offer references from companies that have used the network for a year or more. If approached with care, barter can be an important business tool.

RELATED ARTICLE: Is Barter an IRS Target?

Perhaps the most entrenched myth about barter--one that many CPAs themselves perpetuate out of lack of current information--is that it flags a company for an IRS audit.

Source of the myth: Between 1979 and 1983, the IRS put considerable resources into a project to examine the barter business. During that period, all barter exchange networks were audited, along with a sample of their clients' returns. The study disclosed that businesses that used barter had a better than average record of tax compliance.

Today, a company that barters has the same chance of being audited as any other organization.

RELATED ARTICLE: For More Information

To obtain more information about barter, contact the International Reciprocal Trade Association, 175 West Jackson Boulevard, Suite 625, Chicago, Illinois 60604; 312461-0236. It's e-mail address is

RELATED ARTICLE: How a Barter Transaction Works

1 In a typical barter transaction, a printer uses down time on his presses to do a $3,000 printing job for a member of the network.

2 The trade dollars the printer earned are spent on landscaping by a landscaper in the network.

3 Using the $3,000 of trade dollars, the landscaper buys $3,000 worth of radio advertising.

4 Meanwhile, the radio station, whose air time the landscaper bought, uses the trade dollars earned in this transaction for airplane tickets to be used in an incentive program for its top ad representatives.


* BARTER IS MORE than just a fair exchange of goods and services between two businesses. It often provides both financial and marketing bonuses for both sides as well.

* IT'S BEST TO WORK through a barter exchange network, which acts as a broker for its clients' goods and services. Such networks have thousands of clients, making them a viable source for many business needs, such as office equipment and supplies, printing, advertising, cleaning and maintenance services, professional services and travel and entertainment.

* ALL BARTER INCOME is on the cash basis, and the IRS treats barter transactions as income received for both accrual-basis and cash-basis clients. The value of trade dollars received must be included in gross income for the tax year in which they are credited to the client's account.

* SOME OF THE GOALS barter can achieve: marketing advantage, debt collection, cash conservation and lines of credit--particularly when a business needs to borrow money to relocate, expand or launch a marketing program.

PHYLLIS MALITZ, CPA, is the principal of Phyllis Malitz & Associates, Ltd., a CPA firm with offices in Wilmette and Chicago. She is a member of the federal income taxation committee of the Illinois CPA Society and the barter accounting standards work group of the International Reciprocal Trade Association.
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Author:Malitz, Phyllis
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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