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Advanced Financial
Statements Analysis
By David Harper

Thanks very much for downloading the printable version of this tutorial.

As always, we welcome any feedback or suggestions.

Table of Contents

1) Introduction
2) Who's in Charge?
3) The Financial Statements Are a System
4) Cash Flow
5) Earnings
6) Revenue
7) Working Capital
8) Long-Lived Assets
9) Long-Term Liabilities
10) Pension Plans
11) Conclusion and Resources


Whether you watch analysts on CNBC or read articles in the Wall Street Journal,
you'll hear experts insisting on the importance of "doing your homework" before
investing in a company. In other words, investors should dig deep into the
company's financial statements and analyze everything from the auditor's report to
the footnotes. But what does this advice really mean, and how does an investor
follow it?

The aim of this tutorial is to answer these questions by providing a succinct yet
advanced overview of financial statements analysis. If you already have a grasp of
the definition of the balance sheet and the structure of an income statement, great.
This tutorial will give you a deeper understanding of how to analyze these reports
and how to identify the "red flags" and "gold nuggets" of a company. In other words,
it will teach you the important factors that make or break an investment decision.

If you are new to financial statements, have no worries. You can get the background
knowledge you need in these introductory tutorials on stocks, fundamental analysis,
and ratio analysis.

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Who's in Charge?

In the United States, a company that offers its common stock to the public typically
needs to file periodic financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission
(SEC). We will focus on the three important reports outlined in this table:

The SEC governs the content of these filings and monitors the accounting profession.
In turn, the SEC empowers the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB)--an
independent, nongovernmental organization--with the authority to update U.S.
accounting rules. When considering important rule changes, FASB is impressively
careful to solicit input from a wide range of constituents and accounting
professionals. But once FASB issues a final standard, this standard becomes a
mandatory part of the total set of accounting standards known as Generally Accepted
Accounting Principles (GAAP).

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)
GAAP starts with a conceptual framework that anchors financial reports to a set of
principles such as materiality (the degree to which the transaction is big enough to
matter) and verifiability (the degree to which different people agree on how to
measure the transaction). The basic goal is to provide users--equity investors,
creditors, regulators and the public--with "relevant, reliable and useful" information
for making good decisions.

As the framework is general, it requires interpretation and often re-interpretation in
light of new business transactions. Consequently, sitting on top of the simple
framework is a growing pile of literally hundreds of accounting standards. But
complexity in the rules is unavoidable for at least two reasons.

First, there is a natural tension between the two principles of relevance and
reliability. A transaction is relevant if a reasonable investor would care about it; a
reported transaction is reliable if the reported number is unbiased and accurate. We
want both, but we often cannot get both. For example, real estate is carried on the
balance sheet at historical cost because this historical cost is reliable. That is, we can
know with objective certainty how much was paid to acquire property. However,

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even though historical cost is reliable, reporting the current market value of the
property would be more relevant--but also less reliable.

Consider also derivative instruments, an area where relevance trumps reliability.
Derivatives can be complicated and difficult to value, but some derivatives
(speculative not hedge derivatives) increase risk. Rules therefore require companies
to carry derivatives on the balance sheet at "fair value", which requires an estimate,
even if the estimate is not perfectly reliable. Again, the imprecise fair value estimate
is more relevant than historical cost. You can see how some of the complexity in
accounting is due to a gradual shift away from "reliable" historical costs to "relevant"
market values.

The second reason for the complexity in accounting rules is the unavoidable
restriction on the reporting period: financial statements try to capture operating
performance over the fixed period of a year. Accrual accounting is the practice of
matching expenses incurred during the year with revenue earned, irrespective of
cash flows. For example, say a company invests a huge sum of cash to purchase a
factory, which is then used over the following 20 years. Depreciation is just a way of
allocating the purchase price over each year of the factory's useful life so that profits
can be estimated each year. Cash flows are spent and received in a lumpy pattern
and, over the long run, total cash flows do tend to equal total accruals. But in a
single year, they are not equivalent. Even an easy reporting question such as "how
much did the company sell during the year?" requires making estimates that
distinguish cash received from revenue earned: for example, did the company use
rebates, attach financing terms, or sell to customers with doubtful credit?

(Please note: throughout this tutorial we refer to U.S. GAAP and U.S.-specific
securities regulations, unless otherwise noted. While the principles of GAAP are
generally the same across the world, there are significant differences in GAAP for
each country. Please keep this in mind if you are performing analysis on non-U.S.
companies. )

The Financial Statements Are a System (Balance Sheet &
Statement of Cash Flow)

Financial statements paint a picture of the transactions that flow through a business.
Each transaction or exchange--for example, the sale of a product or the use of a
rented facility--is a building block that contributes to the whole picture.

Let's approach the financial statements by following a flow of cash-based
transactions. In the illustration below, we have numbered four major steps:

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1. Shareholders and lenders supply capital (cash) to the company.

2. The capital suppliers have claims on the company. The balance sheet is an
updated record of the capital invested in the business. On the right-hand side
of the balance sheet, lenders hold liabilities and shareholders hold equity. The
equity claim is "residual", which means shareholders own whatever assets
remain after deducting liabilities.

The capital is used to buy assets, which are itemized on the left-hand side of
the balance sheet. The assets are current, such as inventory, or long-term,
such as a manufacturing plant.

3. The assets are deployed to create cash flow in the current year (cash inflows
are shown in green, outflows shown in red). Selling equity and issuing debt
start the process by raising cash. The company then "puts the cash to use" by
purchasing assets in order to create (build or buy) inventory. The inventory
helps the company make sales (generate revenue), and most of the revenue
is used to pay operating costs, which include salaries.

4. After paying costs (and taxes), the company can do three things with its cash
profits. One, it can (or probably must) pay interest on its debt. Two, it can
pay dividends to shareholders at its discretion. And three, it can retain or re-

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invest the remaining profits. The retained profits increase the shareholders'
equity account (retained earnings). In theory, these reinvested funds are held
for the shareholders' benefit and reflected in a higher share price.

This basic flow of cash through the business introduces two financial
statements: the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows. It is often
said the balance sheet is a static financial snapshot taken at the end of the
year (please see "Reading the Balance Sheet" for more details), whereas the
statement of cash flows captures the "dynamic flows" of cash over the period
(see "What is a Cash Flow Statement?").

Statement of Cash Flows
The statement of cash flows may be the most intuitive of all statements. We have
already shown that, in basic terms, a company raises capital in order to buy assets
that generate a profit. The statement of cash flows "follows the cash" according to
these three core activities: (1) cash is raised from the capital suppliers (which is the
'cash flow from financing', or CFF), (2) cash is used to buy assets ('cash flow from
investing', or CFI), and (3) cash is used to create a profit ('cash flow from
operations', or CFO).

However, for better or worse, the technical classifications of some cash flows are not
intuitive. Below we recast the "natural" order of cash flows into their technical

You can see the statement of cash flows breaks into three sections:

1. Cash flow from financing (CFF) includes cash received (inflow) for the
issuance of debt and equity. As expected, CFF is reduced by dividends paid

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2. Cash flow from investing (CFI) is usually negative because the biggest portion
is the expenditure (outflow) for the purchase of long-term assets such as
plants or machinery. But it can include cash received from separate (that is,
not consolidated) investments or joint ventures. Finally, it can include the
one-time cash inflows/outflows due to acquisitions and divestitures.

3. Cash flow from operations (CFO) naturally includes cash collected for sales
and cash spent to generate sales. This includes operating expenses such as
salaries, rent and taxes. But notice two additional items that reduce CFO:
cash paid for inventory and interest paid on debt.

The total of the three sections of the cash flow statement equals net cash flow: CFF
+ CFI + CFO = net cash flow. We might be tempted to use net cash flow as a
performance measure, but the main problem is that it includes financing flows.
Specifically, it could be abnormally high simply because the company issued debt to
raise cash, or abnormally low because it spent cash in order to retire debt.

CFO by itself is a good but imperfect performance measure. Consider just one of the
problems with CFO caused by the unnatural re-classification illustrated above. Notice
that interest paid on debt (interest expense) is separated from dividends paid:
interest paid reduces CFO but dividends paid reduce CFF. Both repay suppliers of
capital, but the cash flow statement separates them. As such, because dividends are
not reflected in CFO, a company can boost CFO simply by issuing new stock in order
to retire old debt. If all other things are equal, this equity-for-debt swap would boost

In the next installment of this series, we will discuss the adjustments you can make
to the statement of cash flows to achieve a more "normal" measure of cash flow.

Cash Flow

In the previous section of this tutorial, we showed that cash flows through a business
in four generic stages. First, cash is raised from investors and/or borrowed from
lenders. Second, cash is used to buy assets and build inventory. Third, the assets
and inventory enable company operations to generate cash, which pays for expenses
and taxes, before eventually arriving at the fourth stage. At this final stage, cash is
returned to the lenders and investors. Accounting rules require companies to classify
their natural cash flows into one of three buckets (as required by SFAS 95); together
these buckets constitute the statement of cash flows. The diagram below shows how

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