What Is the Accounting Equation?

The accounting equation is considered to be the foundation of the double-entry accounting system. The accounting equation shows on a company's balance sheet whereby the total of all the company's assets equals the sum of the company's liabilities and shareholders' equity.

Based on this double-entry system, the accounting equation ensures that the balance sheet remains “balanced,” and each entry made on the debit side should have a corresponding entry (or coverage) on the credit side.

Accounting Equation Formula

Assets=(Liabilities+Owner’s Equity)\text{Assets}=(\text{Liabilities}+\text{Owner's Equity})Assets=(Liabilities+Owner’s Equity)

Calculating the Equation

The balance sheet holds the basis of the accounting equation:

  1. Locate the company's total assets on the balance sheet for the period.
  2. Total all liabilities, which should be a separate listing on the balance sheet.
  3. Locate total shareholder's equity and add the number to total liabilities.
  4. Total assets will equal the sum of liabilities and total equity.

What Does the Equation Tell You?

The financial position of any business, large or small, is assessed based on two key components of the balance sheet, assets, and liabilities. Owners’ equity or shareholders' equity, is the third section of the balance sheet. The accounting equation is a representation of how these three important components are associated with each other. The accounting equation is also called the basic accounting equation or the balance sheet equation.

While assets represent the valuable resources owned by the company, the liabilities represent its obligations. Both liabilities and shareholders' equity represent how the assets of a company are financed. If it's financed through debt, it'll show as a liability, and if it's financed through issuing equity shares to investors, it'll show in shareholders' equity.

The accounting equation helps to assess whether the business transactions carried on by the company are being accurately reflected in its books and accounts. Below are examples of items listed on the balance sheet:

Assets

Assets include cash and cash equivalents or liquid assets, which may include Treasury bills and certificates of deposit. Accounts receivables are the amount of money owed to the company by its customers for the sale of its product and service. Inventory is also considered an asset.

Liabilities 

Liabilities are what a company typically owes or needs to pay to keep the company running. Debt including long-term debt are liabilities as well as rent, taxes, utilities, salaries, and wages as well as dividends payable.

Shareholders' Equity

Shareholders' equity is a company's total assets minus its total liabilities. Shareholders' equity represents the amount of money that would be returned to shareholders if all of the assets were liquidated and all of the company's debt was paid off.

Retained earnings are part of shareholders' equity and are equal to the percentage of net earnings that were not paid to shareholders as dividends. Think of retained earnings as savings since it represents a cumulative total of profits that have been saved and put aside or retained for future use.

The Double-Entry System

The accounting equation forms the foundation of the double-entry accounting and is a concise representation of a concept that expands into the complex, expanded, and multi-item display of a balance sheet. The balance sheet is based on the double-entry accounting system where total assets of a company are equal to the total of liabilities and shareholder equity.

Essentially, the representation equates all uses of capital (assets) to all sources of capital, where debt capital leads to liabilities and equity capital leads to shareholders' equity.

For a company keeping accurate accounts, every single business transaction will be represented in at least of its two accounts. For instance, if a business takes a loan from a financial entity like a bank, the borrowed money will raise the company's assets and the loan liability will also rise by an equivalent amount. If a business buys raw material by paying cash, it will lead to an increase in the inventory (asset) while reducing cash capital (another asset). Because there are two or more accounts affected by every transaction carried out by a company, the accounting system is referred to as double-entry accounting.

The double entry practice ensures that the accounting equation always remains balanced, meaning that the left side value of the equation will always match with the right side value. In other words, the total amount of all assets will always equal the sum of liabilities and shareholders' equity.

The global adherence to the double-entry book-entry accounting system makes the account keeping and tallying processes much easier, standardized and fool-proof to a good extent. The accounting equation ensures that all entries in the books and records are vetted, and a verifiable relationship exists between each liability (or expense) and its corresponding source, or between each item of income (or asset) and its source.

Key Takeaways

  • The accounting equation is considered to be the foundation of the double-entry accounting system. The accounting equation shows on a company's balance sheet whereby the total of all the company's assets equals the sum of the company's liabilities and shareholders' equity.
  • While assets represent the valuable resources owned by the company, the liabilities represent its obligations. Both liabilities and shareholders' equity represent how the assets of a company are financed. If it's financed through debt, it'll show as a liability, and if it's financed through issuing equity shares to investors, it'll show in shareholders' equity.

Accounting Equation Example

For the fiscal year, leading retailer XYZ Corporation reported the following on its balance sheet:

  • Total assets: $170 billion
  • Total liabilities: $120 billion
  • Total shareholders' equity: $50 billion

If we calculate the right-hand side of the accounting equation (equity + liabilities), we arrive at ($50 billion + $120 billion) = $170 billion, which matches the value of the assets reported by the company.

Real World Example

Below is a portion of Exxon Mobil Corporation's (XOM) balance sheet as of September 30, 2018:

  • Total assets were $354,628 (highlighted in green).
  • Total liabilities were $157,797 (1st highlighted red area).
  • Total equity was $196,831 (2nd highlighted red area).

The accounting equation whereby assets = liabilities + shareholders' equity is calculated as follows:

  • Accounting equation = $157,797 (total liabilities) + $196,831 (equity) equal $354,628, (which equals the total assets for the period)
Exxon Mobil balance sheet
Exxon Mobil balance sheet. Investopedia
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Accounting Equation

Cash Flow vs. Balance Sheet

The cash flow statement shows the amount of cash and cash equivalents entering and leaving a company. The cash flow statement (CFS) measures how well a company manages and generates cash to pay its debt obligations and fund operating expenses.

A balance sheet is a summary of the financial balances of a company, while a cash flow statement shows how the changes in the balance sheet accounts and income on the income statement affect a company's cash position. In essence, a company's cash flow statement measures the flow of cash in and out of a business, while a company's balance sheet measures its assets, liabilities, and owners' equity.

Limits of the Accounting Equation

Although the balance sheet always balances out, the accounting equation doesn't provide investors as to how well a company is performing. Instead, investors must interpret the numbers and decide for themselves whether the company has too many or too few liabilities, not enough assets or perhaps too many assets, or is financing the company properly to ensure long term growth.