Practical View of Cash flow
Originally published: 22/07/2019 15:42
Last version published: 17/09/2019 07:02
Publication number: ELQ-34918-2
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Practical View of Cash flow

Sale is vanity, Profit is sanity, cash is a reality

It is difficult to overstate the importance of cash flow to overall corporate financial health. Indeed, our fundamental concepts of credit quality and valuation are based on projections of cash flow. Typically these projections are of operating cash flow or a closely related metric, free cash flow, which is operating cash flow adjusted for capital expenditures.

These measures of cash are viewed as sustainable and discretionary sources that can be used for such designated purposes as debt repayment, new investment, stock buybacks, and dividends.

Many investors, burned by the trust they have placed in reported earnings in an era of questionable accounting, have turned their focus to cash flow as the only trustworthy measure of financial performance available. One might hear such statements as Cash flow is real and not subject to the vagaries of GAAP or the whims of the accountants. It’s virtually impossible to manage cash flow. Profit is an opinion. Cash is a fact. Dividends are tangible cash, and therefore impossible to fake.

The balance in cash and the total change in cash from one period to the next are generally not prone to misstatement. These amounts are readily verifiable with banks and other institutions holding reported balances. Unfortunately, however, changes in the components of total cash flow —the operating, investing, and financing components—can be reported in a misleading fashion. Typically, but not always, this is done within the boundaries of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as the guidelines provide much flexibility. Increases in operating cash flow, denoting improvement in financial performance, are offset with higher disbursements in the investing or financing sections. The net effect: With no difference in total cash flow, apparent operating performance is improved.

In an era of reduced trust in reported earnings, operating cash flow, properly adjusted, offers a useful means for identifying earnings-related reporting indiscretions. Increases in earnings obtained through questionable means will not generate operating cash flow. Consider, for example, premature or fictitious revenue. Such reporting actions result in growing receivables but not cash. Also, steps taken to misstate inventory might boost gross profit and net income, but will not provide cash flow. Similar statements can be made about aggressive cost capitalization and other creative accounting acts. Earnings are boosted but operating cash flow or, more precisely, operating cash flow adjusted using steps described in the book, is not.

Equities are purchased and loans are made based on the perceived ability of a company to generate cash. Cash flow analysis provides an effective look at the financial soul of a company. An important step in cash flow analysis is deciding whether current cash surpluses or shortfalls will continue. It is not unusual for companies to generate ample amounts of cash even as they slide toward extinction. In contrast, a cash shortfall may be an early sign of future success. To be effective, cash flow analysis must find the true meaning in reported cash results.

This Best Practice includes
1 Creative Cash Flow List - Word Document

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