Monday, November 26, 2007

The Most Important Financial Statement

We all know what surprising the street will do to a stock's price. The street focuses on quarterly revenue, EPS, EBIT, EBITDA and margins. The income statement is where you find all the metrics that the street loves. It therefore must be the most important financial statement. Not!

In my opinion the most important financial statement is the lowly cash flow statement. Unfortunately, it is probably the least used and most misunderstood statement. Ultimately cash flow is what drives the value of any financial asset. The reason analysts look at revenue, EPS, EBIT, EBITDA and margins, they are trying to estimate a cash flow number.

The balance sheet is a snapshot of a company's financial position (assets and liabilities) at a single point in time, while the income statement summarizes a company's income and expenses over an interval of time to determine if a profit was earned. Both of these financial statements are prepared using accrual-basis accounting which matches revenues with the associated expenses to generate those revenues in the same period. This leads to a disconnect between cash and earnings.

For example, during the quarter a company sells some surplus land for cash. The attorney who handled the paperwork did not bill the company by the end of the quarter. Under U.S. accounting rules (SFAS 5 Accounting for Contingencies), you would record an expense on the income statement and a liability to pay the attorney on the balance sheet, although no cash has been paid. The balance sheet and income statement are not the best places to look when you want to understand what is going on with cash.

The cash flow statement is not based on accrual accounting, but instead is a cash-basis report focusing on inflows and outflows of cash. It adjusts out transactions that do not directly affect cash receipts and payments, such as adding depreciation back to net earnings. The cash flow statement allows investors to understand how a company's operations are running, where the cash is coming from and how it is being spent.

Transactions are categorized into the cash flow statement's three sections of operating, investing and financing activities. The accounting rules are very specific in defining what goes into each section, which ensures a degree of comparability between companies. Each section is discussed below.

Operating activities measure cash generated from core business operations – the sale of the company’s products and services. Included here are income and costs associated with production, sales, delivery, as well as collecting cash from customers. Cash from operating activities should always be positive and greater than the company's net income. Earnings are considered "high quality" when operating cash flow is consistently greater than net earnings. If operating cash flow is less than net earnings, this is a strong signal you need to look deeper into the financials with a critical eye.

Investing activities focus on the purchase of the long-term assets the company needs to make and sell its products, along with any sales of long-term assets. This section also includes business acquisitions and strategic investments.

Financing activities include the inflow of cash from the sale of stock or issuance of debt, as well as the outflow of cash as dividends, purchases of treasury stock and repayment of debt.

Conclusion: As an investor, you want to pay close attention to the cash flow statement. Given the complexity of today’s accounting rules, earnings on the income statement and assets and liabilities on the balance sheet are often misleading (e.g. mark-to-market of a derivative, recording an asset for an asset retirement obligation). When a company consistently generates more cash than it uses, it will be able to increase dividends paid, buy back shares, reduce debt, or acquire another company. As a dividend investor, I want to know my company is financially capable of paying me a higher dividend each year, and the cash flow statement is the first place to look when making this determination.

Do you use the cash flow statement when evaluating a company?

Full Disclosure: No position in the aforementioned securities. See a list of all my dividend growth holdings here.

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