The income statement is one of three financial statements that stock investors need to become familiar with (the other two are balance sheet and cash flow statement). Understanding an income statement is essential for investors in order to analyze the profitability and future growth of a company, which should play a huge role in deciding whether or not to invest in it.

In the context of corporate financial reporting, the income statement summarizes a company's revenues (sales) and expenses quarterly and annually for its fiscal year. The final net figure, as well as various other numbers in the statement, are of major interest to the investment community.

Read on to learn how to break down a financial statement. (To learn more, see What You Need To Know About Financial Statements and Footnotes: Start Reading The Fine Print.)

General Terminology and Format Clarifications

Income statements come with various monikers. The most commonly used are "statement of income," "statement of earnings," "statement of operations" and "statement of operating results." Many professionals still use the term P&L, which stands for profit and loss statement, but this term is seldom found in print these days. In addition, the terms "profits," "earnings" and "income" all mean the same thing and are used interchangeably.

Two basic formats for the income statement are used in financial reporting presentations—the multi-step and the single-step. These are illustrated below in two simple examples:

Multi-Step Format Single-Step Format
Net Sales Net Sales
Cost of Sales Materials and Production
Gross Income* Marketing and Administrative
Selling, General and Administrative Expenses (SG&A) Research and Development Expenses (R&D)
Operating Income* Other Income & Expenses
Other Income & Expenses Pretax Income
Pretax Income* Taxes
Taxes Net Income
Net Income (after tax)* --

In the multi-step income statement, four measures of profitability (*) are revealed at four critical junctions in a company's operations—gross, operating, pretax and after tax. In the single-step presentation, the gross and operating income figures are not stated; nevertheless, they can be calculated from the data provided. (For related reading, see: An Introduction to Fundamental Analysis.)

In the single-step method, sales minus materials and production equal gross income. And, by subtracting marketing and administrative and R&D expenses from gross income, we get the operating income figure. If you are a DIY investor, you'll have to do the math; however, if you use investment research data, the experts crunch the numbers for you.

One last general observation. Investors must remind themselves that the income statement recognizes revenues when they are realized—so when goods are shipped, services rendered and expenses incurred. With accrual accounting, the flow of accounting events through the income statement doesn't necessarily coincide with the actual receipt and disbursement of cash. The income statement measures profitability, not cash flow. (To find out more about cash flow, see What Is a Cash Flow Statement? and The Essentials of Cash Flow.)

Income Statement Accounts (Multi-Step Format)

  • Net Sales (a.k.a. sales or revenue): These terms refer to the value of a company's sales of goods and services to its customers. Even though a company's bottom line (its net income) gets most of the attention from investors, the top line is where the revenue or income process begins. Also, in the long run, profit margins on a company's existing products tend to eventually reach a maximum that is difficult on which to improve. Thus, companies typically can grow no faster than their revenues.
  • Cost of Sales (a.k.a. cost of goods/products sold (COGS), and cost of services): For a manufacturer, cost of sales is the expense incurred for labor, raw materials, and manufacturing overhead used in the production of goods. While it may be stated separately, depreciation expense belongs in the cost of sales. For wholesalers and retailers, the cost of sales is essentially the purchase cost of merchandise used for resale. For service-related businesses, cost of sales represents the cost of services rendered or cost of revenues. (To learn more about sales, read Measuring Company Efficiency, Inventory Valuation For Investors: FIFO And LIFO and Great Expectations: Forecasting Sales Growth.)
  • Gross Profit (a.k.a. gross income or gross margin): A company's gross profit does more than simply represent the difference between net sales and the cost of sales. Gross profit provides the resources to cover all of the company's other expenses. Obviously, the greater and more stable a company's gross margin, the greater potential there is for positive bottom line (net income) results.
  • Selling, General and Administrative Expenses: Often referred to as SG&A, this account comprises a company's operational expenses. Financial analysts generally assume that management exercises a great deal of control over this expense category. The trend of SG&A expenses, as a percentage of sales, is watched closely to detect signs, both positive and negative, of managerial efficiency.
  • Operating Income: Deducting SG&A from a company's gross profit produces operating income. This figure represents a company's earnings from its normal operations before any so-called non-operating income and/or costs such as interest expense, taxes and special items. Income at the operating level, which is viewed as more reliable, is often used by financial analysts rather than net income as a measure of profitability.
  • Interest Expense: This item reflects the costs of a company's borrowings. Sometimes companies record a net figure here for interest expense and interest income from invested funds.
  • Pretax Income: Another carefully watched indicator of profitability, earnings garnered before the income tax expense is an important bullet in the income statement. Numerous and diverse techniques are available to companies to avoid and/or minimize taxes that affect their reported income. Because these actions are not part of a company's business operations, analysts may choose to use pretax income as a more accurate measure of corporate profitability.
  • Income Taxes: As stated, the income tax amount has not actually been paid—it is an estimate, or an account that has been created to cover what a company expects to pay.
  • Special Items or Extraordinary Expenses: A variety of events can occasion charges against income. They are commonly identified as restructuring charges, unusual or nonrecurring items and discontinued operations. These write-offs are supposed to be one-time events. Investors need to take these special items into account when making inter-annual profit comparisons because they can distort evaluations.
  • Net Income (a.k.a. net profit or net earnings): This is the bottom line, which is the most commonly used indicator of a company's profitability. Of course, if expenses exceed income, this account caption will read as a net loss. After the payment of preferred dividends, if any, net income becomes part of a company's equity position as retained earnings. Supplemental data is also presented for net income on the basis of shares outstanding (basic) and the potential conversion of stock options, warrants etc. (diluted). (To read more, see Evaluating Retained Earnings: What Gets Kept Counts and Everything You Need To Know About Earnings.)
  • Comprehensive Income: The concept of comprehensive income, which is relatively new (1998), takes into consideration the effect of such items as foreign currency translations adjustments, minimum pension liability adjustments and unrealized gains/losses on certain investments in debt and equity. The investment community continues to focus on the net income figure. The aforementioned adjustment items all relate to volatile market and/or economic events that are out of the control of a company's management. Their impact is real when they occur, but they tend to even out over an extended period of time.

Sample Income Statement

Now let's take a look at a sample income statement for company XYZ for FY ending 2008 and 2009 (expenses are in parentheses):

Income Statement For Company XYZ FY 2008 and 2009
(Figures USD) 2008 2009
Net Sales 1,500,000 2,000,000
Cost of Sales (350,000) (375,000)
Gross Income 1,150,000 1,625,000
Operating Expenses (SG&A) (235,000) (260,000)
Operating Income 915,000 1,365,000
Other Income (Expense) 40,000 60,000
Extraordinary Gain (Loss) - (15,000)
Interest Expense (50,000) (50,000)
Net Profit Before Taxes (Pretax Income) 905,000 1,360,000
Taxes (300,000) (475,000)
Net Income 605,000 885,000

Now that we understand the anatomy of an income statement, we can deduce from the above example that between the years 2008 and 2009, Company XYZ managed to increase sales by about 33%, while reducing its cost of sales from 23% to 19% of sales. Consequently, gross income in 2009 increased significantly, which is a huge plus for the company's profitability. Also, general operating expenses have been kept under strict control, increasing by a modest $25,000. In 2008, the company's operating expenses represented 15.7% of sales, while in 2009 they amounted to only 13%. This is highly favorable in view of the large sales increase.

As a result, the bottom line—net income—for the company in 2009 increased from $605,000 in 2008 to $885,000 in 2009. The positive inter-annual trends in all the income statement components, both income and expense, have lifted the company's profit margins (net income/net sales) from 40% to 44%—again, that's highly favorable.

The Bottom Line

When an investor understands the income and expense components of the income statement, he or she can appreciate what makes a company profitable. In the case of Company XYZ, it experienced a major increase in sales for the period reviewed and was also able to control the expense side of its business. That's a sign of very efficient management, and more likely than not, gives a really good clue as to how solid of an investment the company may be. (For more insight, see Find Investment Quality In The Income Statement and Advanced Financial Statement Analysis.)