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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to read the Cash Flow Statement – Part 1

Have you heard the statement: Cash is king? A business needs cash like a car needs fuel. If there is no regular generation of cash from the day-to-day operations, the business will need to resort to debt and share issues to survive. Seems logical that investors would first look at the Cash Flow Statement in an Annual Report – right?

Unfortunately, most investors in the stock market – even those who have been investing for many years - do not understand or know how to interpret the Cash Flow Statement. Just looking at the Balance Sheet, Profit and Loss statement and the Management Discussion and Analysis is not enough. The real state of a company’s finances is hidden in the Cash Flow Statement and the Notes on Accounts.

With another accounting year coming to a close on Mar 31, 2011, this is as good a time as any to learn the basics of the Cash Flow Statement:-

The Cash Flow Statement allows you to check the different sources of cash inflows into a company during a particular year vis-a-vis the prior year, how much cash was spent, and what it was spent on. Cash inflows are positive, cash outflows are (negative). The three parts of a Cash Flow Statement enable you to understand what a company’s management is doing with the cash at its disposal, by comparing the figures with those appearing in the Balance Sheet and Profit and Loss statement.

Part 1: Cash Flow from Operating Activities

The Net Profit before tax and exceptional items from the Profit and Loss statement is adjusted with depreciation, interest, provisions, profit/loss on investments, debtors, inventories, creditors to arrive at the cash generated from operations. Tax and exceptional items are then adjusted to arrive at the Net Cash from Operating Activities.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive to non-accountants (like me), depreciation is considered an inflow (it is an expenditure in the Profit and Loss statement, but the cash is not paid to any one and remains within the company); creditors/accounts payable is an inflow (because they haven’t been paid yet); debtors/accounts receivable is an outflow (because a ‘sale’ has been accounted in the Profit and Loss statement but the money hasn’t been received yet).

Net Cash Flow from Operating Activities should preferably be positive, and greater than the previous year’s if the net profit has gone up. Newly set-up companies, particularly those in high growth fields like Information Technology or Bio-technology, often have negative cash flows from operations in their initial years. They need to ramp up operations quickly to meet demand but may not be able to negotiate good payment terms from their clients.

Negative cash flows from operations of established companies, if over prolonged periods, indicate that there is something amiss with the business model, or the management has questionable integrity and is diverting cash to unlisted subsidiaries or to related parties.

Investors need to be particularly wary of companies that show good top-line and bottom-line growth year after year, and pay taxes and dividends but show negative cash flows from operations. Where is the cash to pay the taxes and dividends? It comes from regular borrowings and share issues. If such a situation continues for a few years, the debt burden will eventually sink the company. Many realty and high-flying infrastructure companies, and investor favourites like Bartronics, Cranes Software fall within this category.

(Note: The next two parts of the Cash Flow Statement will be covered in Thursday’s post – so please stay tuned.)

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Ganpat said...

Would it be possible to give illustrative examples of a good co;a normal co and a bad co based on cash flow?It would help us a lot.
Many thanks

Subhankar said...

Thanks for your comment.

Please read the next installment, and you may be able to understand cash flows a little better.