What It Is:
In general, a guarantee is a promise to take responsibility for another company's financial obligation if that company cannot meet its obligation. The entity assuming this responsibility is called the guarantor.
How It Works/Example:
Let's assume XYZ Company has a subsidiary named ABC Company. ABC Company would like to build a new plant and thus needs to borrow $10 million from a bank. The bank will probably require XYZ Company to guarantee the loan. By doing so, XYZ Company agrees to repay the loan using cash flows from other parts of its business should ABC Company be unable to generate enough cash on its own to repay the debt.
Often a parent company will guarantee bonds issued by one of its subsidiaries, but there are plenty of other situations that might involve guarantees. For example, vendors sometimes require a guarantee from a customer if the vendor is uncertain about the customer's ability to pay (this most often happens in transactions involving expensive equipment or other physical property). In these situations, the customer's bank might guarantee the customer's payment, meaning that the bank will pay the vendor if the customer does not.
Guarantors don't always guarantee the entire amount of a liability. In bond issues, for example, the guarantor might only guarantee the repayment of interest or principal, but not both. Sometimes more than one company might guarantee a security; in these cases, each guarantor is usually only responsible for a pro rata portion of the issue. In other cases, each guarantor may be responsible for other guarantors' portions if they also default on their responsibilities.
Historically, guarantors disclosed the nature and size of their guarantees in the notes to their financial statements. But in 2002 the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issued Interpretation 45, stating that guarantors must book the fair value of the guaranteed obligation as a liability on the balance sheet and that they must do so at the inception of the guarantee. Some guarantees, such as those that are accounted for as derivatives, those issued by insurance companies, and some guarantees issued by leasing companies, are exempt from this rule. It is important to note that guarantees issued between parents and their subsidiaries do not have to be booked as liabilities.
However, all guarantees must be disclosed. The guarantor must disclose the nature of the guarantee (terms, history, and events that would put the guarantor in a position to fulfill its obligation), the maximum potential liability under the guarantee, and any provisions that might enable the guarantor to recover any money paid out under the guarantee.
Why It Matters:
Guarantees mitigate risk, but it is important to note that they do not make a security risk-free. After all, it is still possible that even the guarantor can default on the liability if the liability is too large or if the guarantor is already struggling for other reasons. Regardless, guarantees provide an extra layer of security, which is why guaranteed securities often get higher credit ratings.