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 Cash
In 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 Flows
Cash 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 Investing
For 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 Financing
Debt 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.

A Simplified Approach to Cash Flow Analysis
A company's cash flow can be defined as the number that appears in the cash flow statement as net cash provided by operating activities, or "net operating cash flow," or some version of this caption. However, there is no universally accepted definition. For instance, many financial professionals consider a company's cash flow to be the sum of its net income and depreciation (a non-cash charge in the income statement). While often coming close to net operating cash flow, this professional's shortcut can be way off the mark and investors should stick with the net operating cash flow number.

While cash flow analysis can include several ratios, the following indicators provide a starting point for an investor to measure the investment quality of a company's cash flow:

Operating Cash Flow/Net Sales
This ratio, which is expressed as a percentage of a company's net operating cash flow to its net sales, or revenue (from the income statement), tells us how many dollars of cash we get for every dollar of sales.

There is no exact percentage to look for but obviously, the higher the percentage the better. It should also be noted that industry and company ratios will vary widely. Investors should track this indicator's performance historically to detect significant variances from the company's average cash flow/sales relationship along with how the company's ratio compares to its peers. Also, keep an eye on how cash flow increases as sales increase; it is important that they move at a similar rate over time.

History of Free Cash Flow
Free cash flow is often defined as net operating cash flow minus capital expenditures, which, as mentioned previously, are considered obligatory. A steady, consistent generation of free cash flow is a highly favorable investment quality - so make sure to look for a company that shows steady and growing free cash flow numbers.

For the sake of conservatism, you can go one step further by expanding what is included in the free cash flow number. For example, in addition to capital expenditures, you could also include dividends for the amount to be subtracted from net operating cash flow to get to get a more comprehensive sense of free cash flow. This could then be compared to sales as was shown above.

As a practical matter, if a company has a history of dividend payments, it cannot easily suspend or eliminate them without causing shareholders some real pain. Even dividend payout reductions, while less injurious, are problematic for many shareholders. In general, the market considers dividend payments to be in the same category as capital expenditures - as necessary cash outlays.

But the important thing here is looking for stable levels. This shows not only the company's ability to generate cash flow but it also signals that the company should be able to continue funding its operations.

Comprehensive Free Cash Flow Coverage
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.

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.

The Bottom Line
Once you understand the importance of how cash flow is generated and reported, you can use these simple indicators to conduct an analysis on your own portfolio. The point, like Moreland said above, is to stay away from "looking only at a firm's income statement and not the cash flow statement." This approach will allow you to discover how a company is managing to pay its obligations and make money for its investors.

Related Articles
  1. Investing

    Time to Bring Active Back into a Portfolio?

    While stocks have rallied since the economic recovery in 2009, many active portfolio managers have struggled to deliver investor returns in excess.
  2. Investing

    What a Family Tradition Taught Me About Investing

    We share some lessons from friends and family on saving money and planning for retirement.
  3. Professionals

    The Best Financial Modeling Courses for Investment Bankers

    Obtain information, both general and comparative, about the best available financial modeling courses for individuals pursuing a career in investment banking.
  4. Investing

    Where the Price is Right for Dividends

    There are two broad schools of thought for equity income investing: The first pays the highest dividend yields and the second focuses on healthy yields.
  5. Economics

    Investing Opportunities as Central Banks Diverge

    After the Paris attacks investors are focusing on central bank policy and its potential for divergence: tightened by the Fed while the ECB pursues easing.
  6. Stock Analysis

    The Biggest Risks of Investing in Pfizer Stock

    Learn the biggest potential risks that may affect the price of Pfizer's stock, complete with a fundamental analysis and review of other external factors.
  7. Professionals

    4 Must Watch Films and Documentaries for Accountants

    Learn how these must-watch movies for accountants teach about the importance of ethics in a world driven by greed and financial power.
  8. Technical Indicators

    Using Pivot Points For Predictions

    Learn one of the most common methods of finding support and resistance levels.
  9. Active Trading

    An Introduction To Depreciation

    Companies make choices and assumptions in calculating depreciation, and you need to know how these affect the bottom line.
  10. Markets

    PEG Ratio Nails Down Value Stocks

    Learn how this simple calculation can help you determine a stock's earnings potential.
  1. Is free cash flow the same as net free cash flow?

    Free cash flow is not the same as net cash flow. Free cash flow is the amount of cash that is available for stockholders ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can working capital be depreciated?

    Working capital as current assets cannot be depreciated the way long-term, fixed assets are. In accounting, depreciation ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Do working capital funds expire?

    While working capital funds do not expire, the working capital figure does change over time. This is because it is calculated ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Do you discount working capital in net present value (NPV)?

    Net present value (NPV) calculations should include the discounted value of changes in working capital. This treatment of ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. How is working capital different from fixed capital?

    There are several key differences between working capital and fixed capital. Most importantly, these two forms of capital ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. How much working capital does a small business need?

    The amount of working capital a small business needs to run smoothly depends largely on the type of business, its operating ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Cyber Monday

    An expression used in online retailing to describe the Monday following U.S. Thanksgiving weekend. Cyber Monday is generally ...
  2. Bar Chart

    A style of chart used by some technical analysts, on which, as illustrated below, the top of the vertical line indicates ...
  3. Take A Bath

    A slang term referring to the situation of an investor who has experienced a large loss from an investment or speculative ...
  4. Black Friday

    1. A day of stock market catastrophe. Originally, September 24, 1869, was deemed Black Friday. The crash was sparked by gold ...
  5. Turkey

    Slang for an investment that yields disappointing results or turns out worse than expected. Failed business deals, securities ...
  6. Barefoot Pilgrim

    A slang term for an unsophisticated investor who loses all of his or her wealth by trading equities in the stock market. ...
Trading Center