Liquidity refers to how easily assets can be converted into cash. Assets like stocks and bonds are very liquid since they can be converted to cash within days. However, large assets such as property, plant, and equipment are not as easily converted to cash. For example, your checking account is liquid, but if you owned land and needed to sell it, it may take weeks or months to liquidate it, making it less liquid.

Financial Liquidity

Cash is the most liquid asset. However, some investments are easily converted to cash like stocks and bonds. Since stocks and bonds are extremely easy to convert to cash, they're often referred to as liquid assets. 

Investment assets that take longer to convert to cash might include preferred or restricted shares, which usually have covenants dictating how and when they can be sold.

Coins, stamps, art and other collectibles are less liquid than cash if the investor wants full value for the items. For example, if an investor was to sell to another collector, they might get full value if they wait for the right buyer. However, the item could be sold at a discount to its value if done through a dealer or broker if cash was needed.

Land, real estate, or buildings are considered the least liquid assets because it could take weeks or months to sell them.

Before investing in any asset, it's important to keep in mind the asset's liquidity levels since it could be difficult or take time to convert back into cash. Of course, other than selling an asset, cash can be obtained by borrowing against an asset. For example, banks lend money to companies, taking the companies' assets as collateral to protect the bank from a default. The company receives cash but must pay back the original loan amount plus interest to the bank.  

Liquidity in the Market

Market liquidity refers to a market's ability to allow assets to be bought and sold easily and quickly, such as a country's financial markets or real estate market. 

The market for a stock is liquid if its shares can be quickly bought and sold and the trade has little impact on the stock's price. Company stocks traded on the major exchanges are typically considered liquid.

If an exchange has a high volume of trade, the price a buyer offers per share (the bid price) and the price the seller is willing to accept (the ask price) should be close to each other. In other words, the buyer wouldn't have to pay more to buy the stock and would be able to liquidate it easily. When the spread between the bid and ask prices widens, the market becomes more illiquid. For illiquid stocks, the spread can be much wider, amounting to a few percentage points of the trading price. (For more insight, see "Why the Bid-Ask Spread Is So Important.")

The time of day is important too. If you're trading stocks or investments after hours, there may be fewer market participants. Also, if you're trading an overseas instrument like currencies, liquidity might be less for the euro during, for example, Asian trading hours. As a result, the bid-offer-spread might be much wider than had you traded the euro during European trading hours.

Liquidity and Companies

Liquidity for companies typically refers to a company's ability to use its current assets to meet its current or short-term liabilities. A company is also measured by the amount of cash it generates above and beyond its liabilities. The cash left over that a company has to expand its business and pay shareholders via dividends is referred to as cash flow. Although, this article won't delve into the merits of cash flow, having operating cash is vital for a company both in the short-term and for long-term expansion. 

Below are three common ratios used to measure a company's liquidity or how well a company can liquidate its assets to meet its current obligations.

The current ratio (also known as working capital ratio) measures the liquidity of a company and is calculated by dividing its current assets by its current liabilities. The term current refers to short-term assets or liabilities that are consumed (assets) and paid off (liabilities) is less than one year. The current ratio is used to provide a company's ability to pay back its liabilities (debt and accounts payable) with its assets (cash, marketable securities, inventory, and accounts receivable). Of course, industry standards vary, but a company should ideally have a ratio greater than 1, meaning they have more current assets to current liabilities. However, it's important to compare ratios to similar companies within the same industry for an accurate comparison.

The quick ratio, sometimes called the acid-test ratio, is identical to the current ratio, except the ratio excludes inventory. Inventory is removed because it is the most difficult to convert to cash when compared to the other current assets like cash, short-term investments, and accounts receivable. In other words, inventory is not as liquid as the other current assets. A ratio value of greater than one is typically considered good from a liquidity standpoint, but this is industry dependent. 

The operating cash flow ratio measures how well current liabilities are covered by the cash flow generated from a company's operations. The operating cash flow ratio is a measure of short-term liquidity by calculating the number of times a company can pay down its current debts with cash generated in the same period. The ratio is calculated by dividing the operating cash flow by the current liabilities. A higher number is better since it means a company can cover its current liabilities more times. An increasing operating cash flow ratio is a sign of financial health, while those companies with declining ratios may have liquidity issues in the short-term.

Bottom Line

Liquidity is important among markets, in companies, and for individuals. While the total value of assets owned may be high, a company or individual could run into liquidity issues if the assets cannot be readily converted to cash. For companies that have loans to banks and creditors, a lack of liquidity can force the company to sell assets they don't want to liquidate in order to meet short-term obligations. Banks play an important role in the market by lending cash to companies while holding assets as collateral.

Market liquidity is critical if investors want to be able to get in and out of investments easily and smoothly with no delays. As a result, you have to be sure to monitor the liquidity of a stock, mutual fund, security or financial market before entering a position.

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