Beginners' Guide to Financial Statements
If you can read a nutrition label or a baseball box score, you can learn to read basic financial statements. If you can follow a recipe or apply for a loan, you can learn basic accounting. The basics aren’t difficult and they aren’t rocket science.
This brochure is designed to help you gain a basic understanding of how to read financial statements. Just as a CPR class teaches you how to perform the basics of cardiac pulmonary resuscitation, this brochure will explain how to read the basic parts of a financial statement. It will not train you to be an accountant (just as a CPR course will not make you a cardiac doctor), but it should give you the confidence to be able to look at a set of financial statements and make sense of them.
Let’s begin by looking at what financial statements do.
“Show me the money!”
We all remember Cuba Gooding Jr.’s immortal line from the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!” Well, that’s what financial statements do. They show you the money. They show you where a company’s money came from, where it went, and where it is now.
There are four main financial statements. They are: (1) balance sheets; (2) income statements; (3) cash flow statements; and (4) statements of shareholders’ equity. Balance sheets show what a company owns and what it owes at a fixed point in time. Income statements show how much money a company made and spent over a period of time. Cash flow statements show the exchange of money between a company and the outside world also over a period of time. The fourth financial statement, called a “statement of shareholders’ equity,” shows changes in the interests of the company’s shareholders over time.
Let’s look at each of the first three financial statements in more detail.
A balance sheet provides detailed information about a company’s assets, liabilities and shareholders’ equity.
Assets are things that a company owns that have value. This typically means they can either be sold or used by the company to make products or provide services that can be sold. Assets include physical property, such as plants, trucks, equipment and inventory. It also includes things that can’t be touched but nevertheless exist and have value, such as trademarks and patents. And cash itself is an asset. So are investments a company makes.
Liabilities are amounts of money that a company owes to others. This can include all kinds of obligations, like money borrowed from a bank to launch a new product, rent for use of a building, money owed to suppliers for materials, payroll a company owes to its employees, environmental cleanup costs, or taxes owed to the government. Liabilities also include obligations to provide goods or services to customers in the future.
Shareholders’ equity is sometimes called capital or net worth. It’s the money that would be left if a company sold all of its assets and paid off all of its liabilities. This leftover money belongs to the shareholders, or the owners, of the company.
A company's assets have to equal, or "balance," the sum of its
liabilities and shareholders' equity.
A company’s balance sheet is set up like the basic accounting equation shown above. On the left side of the balance sheet, companies list their assets. On the right side, they list their liabilities and shareholders’ equity. Sometimes balance sheets show assets at the top, followed by liabilities, with shareholders’ equity at the bottom.
Assets are generally listed based on how quickly they will be converted into cash. Current assets are things a company expects to convert to cash within one year. A good example is inventory. Most companies expect to sell their inventory for cash within one year. Noncurrent assets are things a company does not expect to convert to cash within one year or that would take longer than one year to sell. Noncurrent assets include fixed assets. Fixed assets are those assets used to operate the business but that are not available for sale, such as trucks, office furniture and other property.
Liabilities are generally listed based on their due dates. Liabilities are said to be either current or long-term. Current liabilities are obligations a company expects to pay off within the year. Long-term liabilities are obligations due more than one year away.
Shareholders’ equity is the amount owners invested in the company’s stock plus or minus the company’s earnings or losses since inception. Sometimes companies distribute earnings, instead of retaining them. These distributions are called dividends.
A balance sheet shows a snapshot of a company’s assets, liabilities and shareholders’ equity at the end of the reporting period. It does not show the flows into and out of the accounts during the period.
An income statement is a report that shows how much revenue a company earned over a specific time period (usually for a year or some portion of a year). An income statement also shows the costs and expenses associated with earning that revenue. The literal “bottom line” of the statement usually shows the company’s net earnings or losses. This tells you how much the company earned or lost over the period.
Income statements also report earnings per share (or “EPS”). This calculation tells you how much money shareholders would receive if the company decided to distribute all of the net earnings for the period. (Companies almost never distribute all of their earnings. Usually they reinvest them in the business.)
To understand how income statements are set up, think of them as a set of stairs. You start at the top with the total amount of sales made during the accounting period. Then you go down, one step at a time. At each step, you make a deduction for certain costs or other operating expenses associated with earning the revenue. At the bottom of the stairs, after deducting all of the expenses, you learn how much the company actually earned or lost during the accounting period. People often call this “the bottom line.”
At the top of the income statement is the total amount of money brought in from sales of products or services. This top line is often referred to as gross revenues or sales. It’s called “gross” because expenses have not been deducted from it yet. So the number is “gross” or unrefined.
The next line is money the company doesn’t expect to collect on certain sales. This could be due, for example, to sales discounts or merchandise returns.
When you subtract the returns and allowances from the gross revenues, you arrive at the company’s net revenues. It’s called “net” because, if you can imagine a net, these revenues are left in the net after the deductions for returns and allowances have come out.
Moving down the stairs from the net revenue line, there are several lines that represent various kinds of operating expenses. Although these lines can be reported in various orders, the next line after net revenues typically shows the costs of the sales. This number tells you the amount of money the company spent to produce the goods or services it sold during the accounting period.
The next line subtracts the costs of sales from the net revenues to arrive at a subtotal called “gross profit” or sometimes “gross margin.” It’s considered “gross” because there are certain expenses that haven’t been deducted from it yet.
The next section deals with operating expenses. These are expenses that go toward supporting a company’s operations for a given period – for example, salaries of administrative personnel and costs of researching new products. Marketing expenses are another example. Operating expenses are different from “costs of sales,” which were deducted above, because operating expenses cannot be linked directly to the production of the products or services being sold.
Depreciation is also deducted from gross profit. Depreciation takes into account the wear and tear on some assets, such as machinery, tools and furniture, which are used over the long term. Companies spread the cost of these assets over the periods they are used. This process of spreading these costs is called depreciation or amortization. The “charge” for using these assets during the period is a fraction of the original cost of the assets.
After all operating expenses are deducted from gross profit, you arrive at operating profit before interest and income tax expenses. This is often called “income from operations.”
Next companies must account for interest income and interest expense. Interest income is the money companies make from keeping their cash in interest-bearing savings accounts, money market funds and the like. On the other hand, interest expense is the money companies paid in interest for money they borrow. Some income statements show interest income and interest expense separately. Some income statements combine the two numbers. The interest income and expense are then added or subtracted from the operating profits to arrive at operating profit before income tax.
Finally, income tax is deducted and you arrive at the bottom line: net profit or net losses. (Net profit is also called net income or net earnings.) This tells you how much the company actually earned or lost during the accounting period. Did the company make a profit or did it lose money?
Earnings Per Share or EPS
Most income statements include a calculation of earnings per share or EPS. This calculation tells you how much money shareholders would receive for each share of stock they own if the company distributed all of its net income for the period.
To calculate EPS, you take the total net income and divide it by the number of outstanding shares of the company.
Cash Flow Statements
Cash flow statements report a company’s inflows and outflows of cash. This is important because a company needs to have enough cash on hand to pay its expenses and purchase assets. While an income statement can tell you whether a company made a profit, a cash flow statement can tell you whether the company generated cash.
A cash flow statement shows changes over time rather than absolute dollar amounts at a point in time. It uses and reorders the information from a company’s balance sheet and income statement.
The bottom line of the cash flow statement shows the net increase or decrease in cash for the period. Generally, cash flow statements are divided into three main parts. Each part reviews the cash flow from one of three types of activities: (1) operating activities; (2) investing activities; and (3) financing activities.
The first part of a cash flow statement analyzes a company’s cash flow from net income or losses. For most companies, this section of the cash flow statement reconciles the net income (as shown on the income statement) to the actual cash the company received from or used in its operating activities. To do this, it adjusts net income for any non-cash items (such as adding back depreciation expenses) and adjusts for any cash that was used or provided by other operating assets and liabilities.
The second part of a cash flow statement shows the cash flow from all investing activities, which generally include purchases or sales of long-term assets, such as property, plant and equipment, as well as investment securities. If a company buys a piece of machinery, the cash flow statement would reflect this activity as a cash outflow from investing activities because it used cash. If the company decided to sell off some investments from an investment portfolio, the proceeds from the sales would show up as a cash inflow from investing activities because it provided cash.
The third part of a cash flow statement shows the cash flow from all financing activities. Typical sources of cash flow include cash raised by selling stocks and bonds or borrowing from banks. Likewise, paying back a bank loan would show up as a use of cash flow.
Read the Footnotes
A horse called “Read The Footnotes” ran in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. He finished seventh, but if he had won, it would have been a victory for financial literacy proponents everywhere. It’s so important to read the footnotes. The footnotes to financial statements are packed with information. Here are some of the highlights:
- Significant accounting policies and practices – Companies are required to disclose the accounting
policies that are most important to the portrayal of the company’s financial condition and results.
These often require management’s most difficult, subjective or complex judgments.
- Income taxes – The footnotes provide detailed information about the company’s current and deferred
income taxes. The information is broken down by level – federal, state, local and/or foreign, and the
main items that affect the company’s effective tax rate are described.
- Pension plans and other retirement programs – The footnotes discuss the company’s pension plans and
other retirement or post-employment benefit programs. The notes contain specific information about the
assets and costs of these programs, and indicate whether and by how much the plans are over- or
- Stock options – The notes also contain information about stock options granted to officers and employees, including the method of accounting for stock-based compensation and the effect of the method on reported results.
Read the MD&A
You can find a narrative explanation of a company’s financial performance in a section of the quarterly or annual report entitled, “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.” MD&A is management’s opportunity to provide investors with its view of the financial performance and condition of the company. It’s management’s opportunity to tell investors what the financial statements show and do not show, as well as important trends and risks that have shaped the past or are reasonably likely to shape the company’s future.
The SEC’s rules governing MD&A require disclosure about trends, events or uncertainties known to management that would have a material impact on reported financial information. The purpose of MD&A is to provide investors with information that the company’s management believes to be necessary to an understanding of its financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations. It is intended to help investors to see the company through the eyes of management. It is also intended to provide context for the financial statements and information about the company’s earnings and cash flows.
Financial Statement Ratios and Calculations
You’ve probably heard people banter around phrases like “P/E ratio,” “current ratio” and “operating margin.” But what do these terms mean and why don’t they show up on financial statements? Listed below are just some of the many ratios that investors calculate from information on financial statements and then use to evaluate a company. As a general rule, desirable ratios vary by industry.
- Debt-to-equity ratio compares a company’s total debt to shareholders’ equity. Both of these numbers can be found on a company’s balance sheet. To calculate debt-to-equity ratio, you divide a company’s total liabilities by its shareholder equity, or
- Inventory turnover ratio compares a company’s cost of sales on its income statement with its
average inventory balance for the period. To calculate the average inventory balance for the period, look
at the inventory numbers listed on the balance sheet. Take the balance listed for the period of the report
and add it to the balance listed for the previous comparable period, and then divide by two.
(Remember that balance sheets are snapshots in time. So the inventory balance for the previous period is
the beginning balance for the current period, and the inventory balance for the current period is the ending
balance.) To calculate the inventory turnover ratio, you divide a company’s cost of sales (just below the
net revenues on the income statement) by the average inventory for the period, or
- Operating margin compares a company’s operating income to net revenues. Both of these numbers
can be found on a company’s income statement. To calculate operating margin, you divide a company’s
income from operations (before interest and income tax expenses) by its net revenues, or
- P/E ratio compares a company’s common stock price with its earnings per share. To calculate a
company’s P/E ratio, you divide a company’s stock price by its earnings per share, or
- Working capital is the money leftover if a company paid its current liabilities (that is, its debts due
within one-year of the date of the balance sheet) from its current assets.
Debt-to-Equity Ratio = Total Liabilities / Shareholders’ Equity
If a company has a debt-to-equity ratio of 2 to 1, it means that the company has two dollars of debt to every one dollar shareholders invest in the company. In other words, the company is taking on debt at twice the rate that its owners are investing in the company.
Inventory Turnover Ratio = Cost of Sales / Average Inventory for the Period
If a company has an inventory turnover ratio of 2 to 1, it means that the company’s inventory turned over twice in the reporting period.
Operating Margin = Income from Operations / Net Revenues
Operating margin is usually expressed as a percentage. It shows, for each dollar of sales, what percentage was profit.
P/E Ratio = Price per share / Earnings per share
If a company’s stock is selling at $20 per share and the company is earning $2 per share, then the company’s P/E Ratio is 10 to 1. The company’s stock is selling at 10 times its earnings.
Working Capital = Current Assets – Current Liabilities
Bringing It All Together
Although this brochure discusses each financial statement separately, keep in mind that they are all related. The changes in assets and liabilities that you see on the balance sheet are also reflected in the revenues and expenses that you see on the income statement, which result in the company’s gains or losses. Cash flows provide more information about cash assets listed on a balance sheet and are related, but not equivalent, to net income shown on the income statement. And so on. No one financial statement tells the complete story. But combined, they provide very powerful information for investors. And information is the investor’s best tool when it comes to investing wisely.