Net Operating Loss (NOL)

A company’s allowable deductions exceed the taxable income within a tax period

What is Net Operating Loss (NOL)?

A net operating loss (NOL) is when a company’s allowable deductions exceed the taxable income within a tax period. Because the company’s deductibles are greater than its actual income, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows the company to use the loss and carry it forward in the future to set off future profits. It helps reduce the tax liability of the business.


Net Operating Loss


Common Reasons for Net Operating Loss

One of the most common reasons for net operating loss is when companies are in their early start-up years. In the early stage, start-ups are often not profitable. Another common cause of NOL is losses incurred by a business in its operations. It is commonly seen in businesses that are cyclical in nature.

An example is a mining business, where they may generate large profits in one period, incur an NOL in the next, but make back the profit again in the following period. In this case, they can carry forward the second year NOL to offset taxes in the third year.

When companies report an NOL, three common things can happen:

  1. The company does not owe any taxes for the specific period;
  2. The company can get a refund for previously paid taxes; and
  3. The company can use its business losses to lower future taxable income.


NOL Carryback

The benefit of carrying an NOL carryback is to reduce a company’s tax liability. The year that the NOL occurs will be identified as the NOL year. From that point in time, the company can carry the amount back to the previous two years.

However, it can sometimes carry the amount back for three years under special circumstances, such as losses due to theft. It is done through filing an amended return (using IRS Form 1040x).


NOL Carryforward

In case the company does not want to carry the NOL back or cannot due to prior years NOLs, it can choose to carry it forward and apply them to future taxable income for up to a 20-year period. For an NOL carryforward, the company generates a schedule to track all its cumulative losses, which are used to reduce profits in future years until the balance in the NOL carryforward is zero.


Related Readings

CFI is the official provider of the Certified Banking & Credit Analyst (CBCA)™ certification program, designed to transform anyone into a world-class financial analyst.

In order to help you become a world-class financial analyst and advance your career to your fullest potential, these additional resources will be very helpful:

  • Deferred Tax Liability
  • Income Tax Payable
  • Net Operating Income (NOI)
  • Taxable Income

Free Accounting Courses

Learn accounting fundamentals and how to read financial statements with CFI’s free online accounting classes.
These courses will give the confidence you need to perform world-class financial analyst work. Start now!


Building confidence in your accounting skills is easy with CFI courses! Enroll now for FREE to start advancing your career!