The statement of cash flows tells you how much cash went into and out of a company during a specific time frame such as a quarter or a year. You may wonder why there's a need for such a statement because it sounds very similar to the income statement, which shows how much revenue came in and how many expenses went out.
The difference lies in a complex concept called accrual accounting. Accrual accounting requires companies to record revenues and expenses when transactions occur, not when cash is exchanged. While that explanation seems simple enough, it's a big mess in practice, and the statement of cash flows helps investors sort it out.
The statement of cash flows is very important to investors because it shows how much actual cash a company has generated. The income statement, on the other hand, often includes noncash revenues or expenses, which the statement of cash flows excludes.
One of the most important traits you should seek in a potential investment is the firm's ability to generate cash. Many companies have shown profits on the income statement but stumbled later because of insufficient cash flows. A good look at the statement of cash flows for those companies may have warned investors that rocky times were ahead.
The Three Elements of the Statement of Cash Flows
Because companies can generate and use cash in several different ways, the statement of cash flows is separated into three sections: cash flows from operating activities, from investing activities, and from financing activities.
The cash flows from operating activitiessection shows how much cash the company generated from its core business, as opposed to peripheral activities such as investing or borrowing. Investors should look closely at how much cash a firm generates from its operating activities because it paints the best picture of how well the business is producing cash that will ultimately benefit shareholders.
The cash flows from investing activitiessection shows the amount of cash firms spent on investments. Investments are usually classified as either capital expenditures--money spent on items such as new equipment or anything else needed to keep the business running--or monetary investments such as the purchase or sale of money market funds.
The cash flows from financing activitiessection includes any activities involved in transactions with the company's owners or debtors. For example, cash proceeds from new debt, or dividends paid to investors would be found in this section.
Free cash flow is a term you will become very familiar with over the course of these workbooks. In simple terms, it represents the amount of excess cash a company generated, which can be used to enrich shareholders or invest in new opportunities for the business without hurting the existing operations; thus, it's considered "free." Although there are many methods of determining free cash flow, the most common method is taking the net cash flows provided by operating activities and subtacting capital expenditures (as found in the "cash flows from investing activities" section).