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Net Operating Loss (NOL)


Net Operating Loss (NOL) refers to the state where a company’s allowable tax deductions exceed its taxable income within a fiscal period, resulting in negative earnings. It typically occurs when business expenses surpass revenues. This loss can be used for tax relief purposes as it can be carried forward to offset future profits and thus reduce future tax liabilities.


Net Operating Loss (NOL) would be pronounced phonetically as: Net: /nɛt/Operating: /ˈɑː.pə.reɪ.t̬ɪŋ/Loss: /lɔːs/NOL: /noʊ .ɛl/

Key Takeaways

1. Definition and Context: Net Operating Loss (NOL) is a situation that arises when an individual’s or a corporation’s valid tax deductions exceed their taxable income within a given tax period. In simple terms, NOL is a loss incurred by a company from its operational business activities.

2. Carrying NOL Forward and Backward: NOL is not entirely negative as it may provide future tax relief. This is due to the fact that IRS laws allow businesses to carry the loss forward to offset future profits and reduce their tax liability. The business can also carry the loss backward to recover past taxes paid. The exact years allowable for carrying forward and backward may vary depending on the tax jurisdiction and changes in tax law (for example, as of 2021, the U.S. CARES Act modifies these rules).

3. Record Keeping and Impact on Financial Statements: Keeping accurate records and documentation is vital for businesses claiming NOL as the IRS may require proof. Additionally, it is essential to understand how NOL will affect financial statements, specifically the income statement and the balance sheet, and the company’s overall financial health.


Net Operating Loss (NOL) is a critical element within business and finance domains primarily because it refers to the losses that businesses can incur when their allowable tax deductions outweigh taxable income, which acts as a useful tool for tax management. If a company has an NOL, it means that it has no taxable income for the year, therefore reducing its tax liability. Furthermore, a firm can carryback or carryforward NOL to other tax years, which helps mitigate the impact of profit fluctuations. By applying NOL to profitable years, companies can seek tax refunds for taxes previously paid or reduce future tax payments, contributing to overall stability within their financial management strategy. Therefore, understanding and effectively using NOL is crucial for businesses to optimize their tax planning and enhance financial health.


The primary purpose of a Net Operating Loss (NOL) in the finance and business world is to provide a form of tax relief for businesses that have incurred losses. Essentially, it’s a tax provision that allows companies to compensate for a financially challenging period with income from other profitable periods. This instrument provides companies with a way to balance out their incomes to reflect the real economic profitability over time, rather than the profitability within a single tax year.Using NOL can result in significant tax savings for companies as they can offset taxable income from profitable years. This mechanism enables them to get refunds on previous taxes paid and reduce future tax payments. It provides flexibility for businesses in terms of tax planning strategy by effectively spreading the income and associated taxes over multiple years, in order to smooth out the effects of the cyclical nature of businesses.


1. Tech Startups: Many tech startups often operate at a loss in their initial years due to high R&D costs, marketing costs, and other operational expenses. They typically do not generate profits in their initial phase. This loss is called a Net Operating Loss (NOL). Such start-ups often use these losses to offset future taxable income once the company starts generating profits, reducing their future tax liabilities.2. Airlines’ Industry: The airline industry is known to have high operating costs along with high market competition. For instance, after the events of September 11, 2001, airlines like American Airlines reported significant net operating losses due to reduced travel. Also, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive NOLs in the aviation industry due to travel restrictions worldwide. 3. Retail Sector: Large retail chains like Sears and JCPenney reported substantial net operating losses over consecutive years due to steep declines in sales and profits, increased operating costs, and stronger competition. These NOLs can be used to offset future profitable years or can be carried back to offset taxes paid in more profitable years, depending on the tax laws.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is Net Operating Loss (NOL)?

Net Operating Loss (NOL) refers to a period in which a company’s allowable tax deductions are greater than its taxable income, resulting in a negative taxable income. It is essentially a loss incurred by a company from its business operations.

How is NOL calculated?

NOL is calculated by subtracting total deductions from the total taxable income. The calculation typically excludes income from tax exemptions and items of non-business income or expense.

What can a company do with its NOL?

A company can use its NOL to offset taxable income in future years. This is known as carrying forward the loss. Some tax laws also allow firms to apply a NOL to past tax returns—this is called carrying back the loss.

How long can a Net Operating Loss be carried forward or back?

The specifics depend on jurisdiction and tax regulation, but as per the new U.S tax law effective from 2018, NOLs can be carried forward indefinitely while carrybacks are disallowed for most businesses.

How does NOL benefit a company?

NOL can be beneficial to a company by reducing its total taxable income and thereby decreasing its overall tax liabilities in profitable years. It can provide significant tax relief following a year of poor financial performance.

Does every business report a NOL?

No, not every business will report a NOL. Only businesses that have incurred losses from their operations in a given tax year will report a NOL for that year.

Can an individual have a NOL?

Yes, a self-employed individual or a sole proprietor who has a loss from their business may have a NOL. This happens when their deductions exceed their income.

How does a company report a NOL to the IRS?

Reporting a NOL to the IRS usually involves recording the loss on a tax return in the year it occurred, then recording the carrybacks or carryforwards on amended or future tax returns to offset taxable income. It’s advisable to consult a tax professional or accountant for specific steps or guidance.

How does NOL affect a company’s financial statements?

A NOL doesn’t directly impact a company’s financial statements as it’s primarily used for tax filing purposes. However, the potential deferred tax asset resulting from the NOL carryforwards can be included in the balance sheet.

Related Finance Terms

  • Carryback
  • Carryforward
  • Tax Deductions
  • Corporate Tax
  • Profit and Loss Statement

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