If you believe in the old adage, "it takes money to make money," then you can grasp the essence of cash flow and what it means to a company. The statement of cash flows reveals how a company spends its money (cash outflows) and where the money comes from (cash inflows). We know that a company's profitability, as shown by its net income, is an important investment evaluator. It would be nice to be able to think of this net income figure as a quick and easy way to judge a company's overall performance. However, although accrual accounting provides a basis for matching revenues and expenses, this system does not actually reflect the amount the company has received from the profits illustrated in this system. This can be a vital distinction. In this article, we'll explain what the cash flow statement can tell you and show you where to look to find this information.
Difference Between Earnings and CashIn an August 1995 article in Individual Investor, Jonathan Moreland provides a very succinct assessment of the difference between earnings and cash. He says "at least as important as a company's profitability is its liquidity - whether or not it's taking in enough money to meet its obligations. Companies, after all, go bankrupt because they cannot pay their bills, not because they are unprofitable. Now, that's an obvious point. Even so, many investors routinely ignore it. How? By looking only at a firm's income statement and not the cash flow statement."
The Statement of Cash FlowsCash flow statements have three distinct sections, each of which relates to a particular component - operations, investing and financing - of a company's business activities. For the less-experienced investor, making sense of a statement of cash flows is made easier by the use of literally-descriptive account captions and the standardization of the terminology and presentation formats used by all companies:
Cash Flow from Operations
This is the key source of a company's cash generation. It is the cash that the company produces internally as opposed to funds coming from outside investing and financing activities. In this section of the cash flow statement, net income (income statement) is adjusted for non-cash charges and the increases and decreases to working capital items - operating assets and liabilities in the balance sheet's current position. Cash Flow from InvestingFor the most part, investing transactions generate cash outflows, such as capital expenditures for plant, property and equipment, business acquisitions and the purchase of investment securities. Inflows come from the sale of assets, businesses and investment securities. For investors, the most important item in this category is capital expenditures (more on this later). It's generally assumed that this use of cash is a prime necessity for ensuring the proper maintenance of, and additions to, a company's physical assets to support its efficient operation and competitiveness. Cash Flow from FinancingDebt and equity transactions dominate this category. Companies continuously borrow and repay debt. The issuance of stock is much less frequent. Here again, for investors, particularly income investors, the most important item is cash dividends paid. It's cash, not profits, that is used to pay dividends to shareholders.
Comprehensive Free Cash Flow Coverage: The term "cash cow," which is applied to companies with ample free cash flow, is not a very elegant term, but it is certainly one of the more appealing investment qualities you can apply to a company with this characteristic.
You can calculate a comprehensive free cash flow ratio by dividing the comprehensive free cash flow by net operating cash flow to get a percentage ratio - the higher the percentage the better.
Free cash flow is an important evaluative indicator for investors. It captures all the positive qualities of internally produced cash from a company's operations and subjects it to a critical use of cash - capital expenditures. If a company's cash generation passes this test in a positive way, it is in a strong position to avoid excessive borrowing, expand its business, pay dividends and to weather hard times.
Comprehensive Free Cash Flow Coverage:
The term "cash cow," which is applied to companies with ample free cash flow, is not a very elegant term, but it is certainly one of the more appealing investment qualities you can apply to a company with this characteristic.
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