Ratios can be invaluable tools for making decisions about companies you might want to invest in. Across the industry, they are used by individual investors and professional analysts alike. There are a large variety of ratios out there. Commonly, financial ratios are broken up into four major categories: profitability ratiosliquidity ratios, solvency ratios, and valuation ratios. In this article, we'll take a look at each of these four categories and provide examples of simple-to-use ratios for each that can help you to easily get important insight on a company you may be interested in investing in.

Profitability Ratios

Profitability is a key aspect that should be analyzed when you're considering investing in a company. This is because high revenues alone don't necessarily translate into high earnings or high dividends for investors. In general, profitability analysis seeks to analyze business productivity from multiple angles using a few different scenarios. Profitability ratios help provide insight into how much profit a company is generating and how that profit relates to other important information about the company.

Some key profitability ratios include:

  • gross margin
  • operating margin 
  • net margin
  • EBITDA margin
  • cash flow margin
  • return on assets
  • return on equity
  • return on invested capital

One of the leading ratios used by investors for a quick check of profitability is net profit margin.

Net Profit margin is calculated as follows:

This ratio compares a company’s net income to its revenue. In general, the higher a company's profit margin the better. A net profit margin of one means that a company is converting all of its revenue to net income. Profit margin levels can vary across industries and time periods as this ratio can be affected by several factors. Thus, it can also be helpful to take a look at net profit margin versus the industry and also versus the company’s historical average.

With net profit margin, there can be a couple of red flags you should watch out for, especially where the company is seeing decreasing profit margins year-over-year. This can suggest changing market conditions, increasing competition or rising costs.

If a company has a really low profit margin, it could mean it needs to focus on decreasing expenses through wide-scale strategic initiatives. A really high profit margin relative to the industry can mean a significant advantage in economies of scale or potentially some accounting schemes that may not be sustainable for the long term.

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Analyze Investments Quickly With Ratios

Liquidity Ratios

Liquidity is a measure of how quickly a company can repay its liabilities. This also shows how the assets of a company cover its expenses. Liquidity can give investors an idea of a company’s operational efficiency. It also shows how capable a company is in raising cash to purchase additional assets or to repay creditors quickly, either in an emergency situation or in the course of normal business.

Some of the key liquidity ratios include:

  • current ratio
  • quick ratio
  • cash ratio
  • cash conversion cycle
  • operating cash flow ratio
  • receivables turnover
  • inventory turnover
  • working capital turnover

The current and quick ratios are a great way to assess the liquidity of a firm. Both ratios are very similar.

The current ratio is calculated by dividing current assets by current liabilities. Since current assets and current liabilities represent activity in the upcoming 12 months, this ratio can provide insight into the firm’s short-term liquidity. The higher the current asset ratio the better as this represents the number of times current assets can cover current liabilities.

The quick ratio is basically the same. This ratio, however, subtracts inventory from current assets. This gives a more streamlined insight into the short-term liquidity of the firm by narrowing the current assets to exclude inventory. Again, a higher quick ratio is better.

Solvency Ratios

Solvency ratios are used by investors to get a picture of how well a company can deal with its long-term financial obligations. They can also be referred to as leverage ratios. As you might expect, a company weighed down with debt is probably a less favorable investment than one with a minimal amount of debt on its books.

Some of the most popular solvency ratios include:

Debt to assets and debt to equity are two top ratios often used for a quick check of a company’s debt levels. Both seek to see how debt stacks up against other categories on the balance sheet. The total debt to total assets ratio is used to determine how much of a company's assets are tied up by debt.

Total debt to total assets is calculated as follows:

As a general rule, a number closer to zero is generally better, because it means that a company is carrying less debt in comparison to its total assets. The more solvent the assets are the better. Remember, lenders also typically have the first claim on a company's assets if they're forced to liquidate so a lower debt/assets ratio can indicate less risk.

When using this ratio to make an analysis of a company, it can be helpful to look at both the company growth phase and the industry as a whole. It's not unrealistic for a younger company to have a debt to total assets ratio closer to one (with more of its assets financed by debt) as it hasn't yet had a chance to eliminate its debt.

Valuation Ratios

Valuation ratios are some of the most commonly quoted and easily used ratios for analyzing the attractiveness of an investment in a company. These ratios primarily integrate the company’s publicly traded stock price to give investors an understanding of how cheap or expensive the company is in the market. In general, the lower the ratio level, the more attractive an investment in a company becomes.

Popular valuation ratios include:

The price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is one of the most well-known valuation ratios It compares the company's stock price to its earnings on a per-share basis. Like other valuation ratio analysis, the price to earnings shows the premium that the market is willing to pay.

The P/E ratio is calculated as follows:

This ratio transforms any company's earnings into an easily comparable measure. Basically, it will tell you how much investors are willing to pay for $1 of earnings in that company. The higher the ratio, the more investors are willing to spend. But don't think that a higher P/E ratio for one company necessarily suggests that its stock is overpriced. Different industries have substantially different P/E ratios, so it is important to compare the P/E ratio to that of the industry.

What You Need to Know

Ratios are comparison points for companies. They can be used to evaluate one stock in an industry versus another in the same field. Likewise, they can be used to measure a company today against its historical numbers. In most cases, it can also be very important to understand the variables driving ratios as management has the flexibility to at times alter its strategy to make its stock and company ratios more attractive. Generally, ratios are typically not used in isolation but rather in combinations. Having a good idea of ratios in each of the four categories above will give you a comprehensive view of the company from different angles and potentially help you to more easily spot caveats or red flags.

The Bottom Line

The information you need to calculate ratios is easy to come by as every single number or figure you need can be found in a company's financial statements (which can be found on the company's website or on most stock quote sites). Once you have the raw data, you can plug it right into your financial analysis and put those numbers to work for you.

Everyone wants an edge in investing, but one of the best tools out there is frequently misunderstood and avoided by new investors. Understanding what ratios tell you, as well as where to find all the information you need to calculate them, can give you greater confidence in your investment decisions and potentially help you to better avoid large losses.