A company's annual report is the single most important way for it to convey itself to potential investors. As such, it should come as no surprise that an annual report serves to present the company in best light possible without violating any Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations. Unfortunately, many investors read annual reports but fail to read them effectively. In other words, while annual reports are clearly prepared without any intent to deceive or reflect dishonesty about the business, investors should always read them with a sense of skepticism. In other words, learn how to read between the lines and decipher the actual condition of the company.
Annual Report Vs. 10-K Filing
Typically, a company will file both an annual report and 10-K report to the SEC. An annual report is the shorter version that often comes with pictures, nice glossy color pages, a letter from the Chairman/CEO and an overview of the financials.

The 10-K is the black and white, no color pictures document that is submitted to the SEC. Very often, a business will simply file the 10-K as its annual report since that document is mandatory for every public company. So guess which one carries more significance to the investor - the longer and more boring 10-K filing. Think of the glossy annual report as informative marketing material. If a company does file both reports, use the annual report as a great first look at a business before tackling the 10-K filing. Very often, the annual report and 10-K are merged into one document, with the annual report at the beginning to provide an overview of the year's results.

The Components of an Annual Filing
If you are interested in investing in a public company you can not avoid examining and reading the 10-K filing, which I will now refer to as the annual report.

The 10-Ks begin with a detailed description of the business, followed by risk factors, a rundown of any legal issues, and, finally, the numbers and financial notes in the back. Oftentimes, the most essential components of the annual filing are the following items:

  • Item 1: Business - a description of the company's operation
  • Item 1A: Risk Factors
  • Item 3: Legal Proceedings
  • Item 6: Selected Financial Data
  • Item 7: Management's Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition

How to Tackle
People read annual reports in different ways. Some investors even prefer to start at the back and work their way to the beginning. It makes no difference how you read them, as long you absorb the essential points of the business and its financial condition. However, there is a good way to tackle these reports that is both most efficient and most effective.

Without question, you should first read Item 1, which is the business description. You can't possibly go any further in your research without knowing what the company does! Also, by getting to know the business first, you can then determine if you need to go any further. That determination is simple. Just ask yourself if you understand what the company does, who its customers are, and the industry it operates in. If you answer no, you're done. Move on to the next business.

Next, you should jump to Items 6 and 7 and examine and analyze the financial data. How has the company performed over a period of years? Has the balance sheet gotten stronger or weaker over time? Look over the cash flow statement and see if the business has been a generator of cash or a user of cash. It's possible for businesses to report net income while at the same time remaining cash flow negative. Compare the income statement with the cash flow statement for any red flags. If you like what you see, move on and if not, move on to the next company. (Learn how to analyze the balance sheet in Breaking Down The Balance Sheet.)

Afterwards it's time to determine if any hidden surprises may lurk beneath the surface. So you must now go back and read the risk factors section and the legal proceedings section, if any legal matters exist. Because this is a filing to the SEC, the risk factors will be very detailed and include risks like "our industry is highly fragmented with lots of competitors or "our stock price may experience periods of volatility." While these are important risks to consider, they should not significantly reduce the desirability of the business.

Instead, focus on any unusual risk factors, such as if the company generates a substantial portion of its revenues for one or two customers. In addition, the Legal Proceedings section will alert you if any significant lawsuits are in the works. Again, don't ignore any legal liabilities, but if you're looking at a billion dollar company and it has a pending lawsuit against it for damages of $10 million, that's not uncommon. Pfizer, one of the largest drug companies in the world, will also have patent lawsuits and drug liability claims that may exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. But that's part of the normal course of business for any major pharmaceutical company, and a drop in the bucket for Pfizer when you see that the company has over $50 billion in cash and short-term investments on the balance sheet.

Focus on What You Know
We all have different ways of deciphering and storing information. Feel free to read the annual report in a way that works for you. But learn to concentrate on the most important aspects of a company's 10-K filing. By doing so, you will avoid wasting unnecessary time on companies that do not meet your investment suitability. But always remember that just because you aren't investing in that particular business that you have wasted your time. Investing is a discipline that rewards those who are continuously learning.

For related reading, take a look at SEC Filings: Forms You Need To Know and Become Your Own Stock Analyst.

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