10 Tips for Reading a Financial Report

By John A. Tracy

You can compare reading a business’s financial report with shucking an oyster: You have to know what you’re doing and work to get at the meat. You need a good reason to pry into a financial report. The main reason to become informed about the financial performance and condition of a business is because you have a stake in the business. The financial success or failure of the business makes a difference to you.

Get in the right frame of mind

You don’t have to be a math wizard or rocket scientist to extract the essential points from a financial report. You can find the bottom line in the income statement and compare this profit number with other relevant numbers in the financial statements. You can read the amount of cash in the balance sheet. If the business has a zero or near-zero cash balance, you know that this is a serious — perhaps fatal — problem.

Get in the right frame of mind. Don’t let a financial report bamboozle you. Locate the income statement, find bottom-line profit (or loss!), and get going. You can do it!

Decide what to read

Suppose you want more financial information than you can get in news articles. The annual financial reports of public companies contain lots of information: a letter from the chief executive, a highlights section, trend charts, financial statements, extensive footnotes to the financial statements, historical summaries, and a lot of propaganda. In contrast, the financial reports of most private companies are significantly smaller; they contain financial statements with footnotes and not much more.

You could read just the highlights section and let it go at that. This might do in a pinch. You should read the chief executive’s letter to shareowners as well. Ideally, the letter summarizes in an evenhanded and appropriately modest manner the main developments during the year. Be warned, however, that these letters from the top dog often are self-congratulatory and typically transfer blame for poor performance on factors beyond the control of the managers. Read them, but take these letters with a grain of salt.

Many public businesses release a condensed summary version in place of their much longer and more detailed annual financial reports. The scaled-down, simplified, and shortened versions of annual financial reports are adequate for average stock investors. They aren’t adequate for serious investors and professional investment managers. These investors and money managers should read the full-fledged financial report of the business, and they perhaps should study the company’s annual 10-K report that is filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Improve your accounting savvy

Financial statements — the income statement, balance sheet, and statement of cash flows — are the core of a financial report. To make sense of financial statements, you need at least a rudimentary understanding of financial statement accounting. You don’t have to be a CPA, but the accountants who prepare financial statements presume that you’re familiar with accounting terminology and financial reporting practices. If you’re an accounting illiterate, the financial statements probably look like a Sudoku puzzle. There’s no way around this demand on financial report readers. After all, accounting is the language of business.

Judge profit performance

A business earns profit by making sales and by keeping expenses less than sales revenue, so the best place to start in analyzing profit performance is not the bottom line but the top line: sales revenue. Here are some questions to focus on:

  • How does sales revenue in the most recent year compare with the previous year’s?
  • What is the gross margin ratio of the business?
  • Based on information from a company’s most recent income statement, how do gross margin and the company’s bottom line (net income, or net earnings) compare with its top line (sales revenue)?

One last point: Put a company’s profit performance in the context of general economic conditions.

Test earnings per share (EPS) against change in bottom line

As you know, public companies report net income in their income statements. Below this total profit number for the period, public companies also report earnings per share (EPS), which is the amount of bottom-line profit for each share of its stock. Strictly speaking, therefore, the bottom line of a public company is its EPS. Private companies don’t have to report EPS; however, the EPS for a private business is fairly easy to calculate: Divide its bottom-line net income by the number of ownership shares held by the equity investors in the company.

The market value of ownership shares of a public company depends mainly on its EPS. Individual investors obviously focus on EPS, which they know is the primary driver of the market value of their investment in the business. The book value per share of a private company is the closest proxy you have for the market value of its ownership shares. The higher the EPS, the higher the market value for a public company. And the higher the EPS, the higher the book value per share for a private company.

Now, you would naturally think that if net income increases, say, 10 percent over last year, then EPS would increase 10 percent. Not so fast. EPS — the driver of market value and book value per share — may change more or less than 10 percent:

  • Less than 10 percent: The business may have issued additional stock shares during the year, or it may have issued additional management stock options that get counted in the number of shares used to calculate diluted EPS. The profit pie may have been cut up into a larger number of smaller pieces. How do you like that?
  • More than the 10 percent: The business may have bought back some of its own shares, which decreases the number of shares used in calculating EPS. This could be a deliberate strategy for increasing EPS by a higher percent than the percent increase in net income.

Compare the percent increase/decrease in total bottom-line profit over last year with the corresponding percent increase/decrease in EPS. Why? Because the percent changes in EPS and profit can diverge. For a public company, use its diluted EPS if it’s reported. Otherwise, use its basic EPS.

Tackle unusual gains and losses

Many income statements start out normally: sales revenue less the expenses of making sales and operating the business. But then there’s a jarring layer of unusual gains and losses on the way down to the final profit line. This could be the result of a flooded building or a lawsuit. What’s a financial statement reader to do when a business reports such unusual, nonrecurring gains and losses in its income statement?

There’s no easy answer to this question. You could blithely assume that these things happen to a business only once in a blue moon and should not disrupt the business’s ability to make profit on a sustainable basis. Think of this as the earthquake mentality approach: When there’s an earthquake, there’s a lot of damage, but most years have no serious tremors and go along as normal. Unusual gains and losses are supposed to be nonrecurring in nature and recorded infrequently. In actual practice, however, many businesses report these gains and losses on a regular and recurring basis — like having an earthquake every year or so.

Check cash flow from profit

The objective of a business is not simply to make profit but to generate cash flow from making profit as quickly as possible. Cash flow from making profit is the most important stream of cash inflow to a business. A business could sell off some assets to generate cash, and it can borrow money or get shareowners to put more money in the business. But cash flow from making profit is the spigot that should always be turned on. A business needs this cash flow to make cash distributions from profit to shareowners, to maintain liquidity, and to supplement other sources of capital to grow the business.

The income statement does not — this bears repeating, does not — report the cash inflows of sales and the cash outflows of expenses. Therefore, the bottom line of the income statement is not a cash flow number. The net cash flow from the profit-making activities of the business (its sales and expenses) is reported in the statement of cash flows. When you look there, you’ll undoubtedly discover that the cash flow from operating activities (the official term for cash flow from profit-making activities) is higher or lower than the bottom-line profit number in the income statement.

Look for signs of financial distress

A business can build up a good sales volume and have very good profit margins, but if the company can’t pay its bills on time, its profit opportunities could go down the drain. Solvency refers to a business’s prospects of being able to meet its debt and other liability payment obligations on time, in full. Solvency analysis looks for signs of financial distress that could cause serious disruptions in the business’s profit-making operations. Even if a business has a couple billion bucks in the bank, you should ask, “How does its solvency look? Is there any doubt it can pay its bills on time?”

Recognize the possibility of restatement and fraud

When a business restates its original financial report and issues a new version, it doesn’t make restitution for any losses that investors suffered by relying on the originally reported financial statements. In fact, few companies even say they’re sorry when they put out revised financial statements.

All too often, the reason for the restatement is that someone later discovered that the original financial statements were based on fraudulent accounting. Frankly speaking, CPAs don’t have a very good track record for discovering financial reporting fraud. What it comes down to is this: Investors take the risk that the information in the financial statements they use in making decisions is subject to revision at a later time.

Remember the limits of financial reports

There’s a lot more to investing than reading financial reports. Financial reports are an important source of information, but investors also should stay informed about general economic trends and developments, political events, business takeovers, executive changes, technological changes, and much more.

When you read financial statements, keep in mind that these accounting reports are somewhat tentative and conditional. Accountants make many estimates and predictions in recording sales revenue and income and recording expenses and losses. Some soft numbers are mixed in with hard numbers in financial statements. In short, financial statements are iffy to some extent. There’s no getting around this limitation of accounting.