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The Basic Accounting Statements

The Basic Accounting Statements

There are three basic accounting statements that summarize information about a firm. The first is the balance sheet which summarizes the assets owned by a firm, the value of these assets and the mix of financing, debt and equity, used to finance these assets at a point in time.

The next is the income statement, which provides information on the revenues and expenses of the firm, and the resulting income made by the firm, during a period. The period can be a quarter (if it is a quarterly income statement) or a year (if it is an annual report).

Finally, there is the statement of cash flows, which specifies the sources and uses of cash of the firm from operating, investing and financing activities, during a period.The statement of cash flows can be viewed as an attempt to explain how much the cash flows during a period were, and why the cash balance changed during the period.

Asset Measurement and Valuation

When analyzing any firm, we would like to know the types of assets that it owns, the values of these assets and the degree of uncertainty about these values. Accounting statements do a reasonably good job of categorizing the assets owned by a firm, a partial job of assessing the values of these assets and a poor job of reporting uncertainty about asset values. In this section, we will begin by looking at the accounting principles underlying asset categorization and measurement, and the limitations of financial statements in providing relevant information about assets.

An asset is any resource that has the potential to either generate future cash inflows or reduce future cash outflows. While that is a general definition broad enough to cover almost any kind of asset, accountants add a caveat that for a resource to be an asset. A firm has to have acquired it in a prior transaction and be able to quantify future benefits with reasonable precision. The accounting view of asset value is to a great extent grounded in the notion of historical cost, which is the original cost of the asset, adjusted upwards for improvements made to the asset since purchase and downwards for the loss in value associated with the aging of the asset. This historical cost is called the book value. While the generally accepted accounting principles for valuing an asset vary across different kinds of assets, three principles underlie the way assets are valued in accounting statements.

An Abiding Belief in Book Value as the Best Estimate of Value: Accounting estimates of asset value begin with the book value. Unless a substantial reason is given to do otherwise, accountants view the historical cost as the best estimate of the value of an asset.

A Distrust of Market or Estimated Value: When a current market value exists for an asset that is different from the book value, accounting convention seems to view this market value with suspicion. The market price of an asset is often viewed as both much too volatile and too easily manipulated to be used as an estimate of value for an asset. This suspicion runs even deeper when values are is estimated for an asset based upon expected future cash flows.

A Preference for under estimating value rather than over estimating it: When there is more than one approach to valuing an asset, accounting convention takes the view that the more conservative (lower) estimate of value should be used rather than the less conservative (higher) estimate of value. Thus, when both market and book value are available for an asset, accounting rules often require that you use the lesser of the two numbers.

Accounts Receivable

Accounts receivable represent money owed by entities to the firm on the sale of products on credit. When the Home Depot sells products to building contractors and gives them a few weeks to make the payment, it is creating accounts receivable. The accounting convention is for accounts receivable to be recorded as the amount owed to the firm, based upon the billing at the time of the credit sale. The only major valuation and accounting issue is when the firm has to recognize accounts receivable that are not collectible. Firms can set aside a portion of their income to cover expected bad debts from credit sales, and accounts receivable will be reduced by this reserve. Alternatively, the bad debts can be recognized as they occur and the firm can reduce the accounts receivable accordingly. There is the danger, however, that absent a decisive declaration of a bad debt, firms may continue to show as accounts receivable amounts that they know are unlikely to be ever collected.


Cash is one of the few assets for which accountants and financial analysts should agree on value. The value of a cash balance should not be open to estimation error. Having said this, we should note that fewer and fewer companies actually hold cash in the conventional sense (as currency or as demand deposits in banks). Firms often invest the cash in interest-bearing accounts or in treasuries, so as to earn a return on their investments In either case, market value can deviate from book value, especially if the investments are long term. While there is no real default risk in either of these investments, interest rate movements can affect their value. We will examine the valuation of marketable securities later in this section.

Intangible Assets

Intangible assets include a wide array of assets ranging from patents and trademarks to goodwill. The accounting standards vary across intangible assets.

1. Patents and Trademarks

Patents and trademarks are valued differently depending on whether they are generated internally or acquired. When patents and trademarks are generated from internal sources, such as research, the costs incurred in developing the asset are expensed in that period even though the asset might have a life of several accounting periods. Thus, the intangible asset is not usually valued in the balance sheet of the firm. In contrast, when an intangible asset is acquired from an external party, it is treated as an asset.

Intangible assets have to be amortized over their expected lives, with a maximum amortization period of 40 years. The standard practice is to use straight-line amortization. For tax purposes, however, firms are not allowed to amortize goodwill or other intangible assets with no specific lifetime.

2. Goodwill

Intangible assets are sometimes the by-products of acquisitions. When a firm acquires another firm, the purchase price is first allocated to tangible assets and then allocated to any intangible assets such as patents or trade names. Any residual becomes goodwill. While accounting principles suggest that goodwill captures the value of any intangibles that are not specifically identifiable, it is really a reflection of the difference between the market value of the firm owning the assets and the book value of assets. This approach is called purchase accounting and it creates an intangible asset (goodwill) which has to be amortized over 40 years. Firms, which do not want to see this charge against their earnings, often use an alternative approach called pooling accounting, in which the purchase price never shows up in the balance sheet. Instead, the book values of the two companies involved in the merger are aggregated to create the consolidated balance of the combined firm.

Measuring Financing Mix

Accountants categorize liabilities into current liabilities, long term debt and long term liabilities that are neither debt nor equity. Next, we will examine the way they measure each of these.

Current Liabilities

Current liabilities categorizes all obligations that the firm has coming due in the next accounting period. These generally include:

1. Accounts Payable – representing credit received from suppliers and other vendors to the firm. The value of accounts payable represents the amounts due to these creditors. For this item, book and market value should be similar.

2. Short term borrowing representing short term loans (due in less than a year) taken to finance the operations or current asset needs of the business. Here again, the value shown represents the amounts due on such loans, and the book and market value should be similar, unless the default risk of the firm has changed dramatically since it borrowed the money.

3. Short term portion of long term borrowing representing the portion of the long term debt or bonds that is coming due in the next year. Here again, the value shown is the actual amount due on these loans, and market and book value should converge as the due date approaches.

4. Other short term liabilities which is a catch-all component for any other short term liabilities that the firm might have, including wages due to its employees and taxes due to the government.

Of all the items on the liability side of the balance sheet, absent outright fraud, current liabilities should be the one for which the accounting estimates of book value and financial estimates of market value are the closest.

Long Term Debt

Long term debt for firms can take one of two forms. It can be a long-term loan from a bank or other financial institution or it can be a long-term bond issued to financial markets, in which case the creditors are the investors in the bond. Accountants measure the value of long term debt by looking at the present value of payments due on the loan or bond at the time of the borrowing. For bank loans, this will be equal to the nominal value of the loan. With bonds, however, there are three possibilities: When bonds are issued at par value, for instance, the value of the long-term debt is generally measured in terms of the nominal obligation created, in terms of principal (face value) due on the borrowing. When bonds are issued at a premium or a discount on par value, the bonds are recorded at the issue price, but the premium or discount to the face value is amortized over the life of the bond. As an extreme example, companies that issue zero coupon debt have to record the debt at the issue price, which will be significantly below the principal (face value) due at maturity. The difference between the issue price and the face value is amortized each period and is treated as a non-cash interest expense that is tax deductible.

In all these cases, the book value of debt is unaffected by changes in interest rates during the life of the loan or bond. Note that as market interest rates rise (fall), the present value of the loan obligations should decrease (increase). This updated market value for debt is not shown on the balance sheet. If debt is retired prior to maturity, the difference between book value and the amount paid at retirement is treated as an extraordinary gain or loss in the income statement.

Finally, companies which have long term debt denominated in non-domestic currencies have to adjust the book value of debt for changes in exchange rates. Since exchange rate changes reflect underlying changes in interest rates, it does imply that this debt is likely to be valued much nearer to market value than is debt in the home currency.

Other Long Term Liabilities

Firms often have long term obligations that are not captured in the long term debt item. These include obligations to lessors on assets that firms have leased, to employees in the form of pension fund and health care benefits yet to be paid, and to the government in the form of taxes deferred. In the last two decades, accountants have increasingly moved towards quantifying these liabilities and showing them as long term liabilities.

1. Leases

Firms often choose to lease long-term assets rather than buy them. Lease payments create the same kind of obligation that interest payments on debt create, and they must be viewed in a similar light. If a firm is allowed to lease a significant portion of its assets and keep it off its financial statements, a perusal of the statements will give a very misleading view of the company's financial strength. Consequently, accounting rules have been devised to force firms to reveal the extent of their lease obligations on their books.

There are two ways of accounting for leases. In an operating lease, the lessor (or owner) transfers only the right to use the property to the lessee. At the end of the lease period, the lessee returns the property to the lessor. Since the lessee does not assume the risk of ownership, the lease expense is treated as an operating expense in the income statement and the lease does not affect the balance sheet. In a capital lease, the lessee assumes some of the risks of ownership and enjoys some of the benefits. Consequently, the lease, when signed, is recognized both as an asset and as a liability (for the lease payments) on the balance sheet. The firm gets to claim depreciation each year on the asset and also deducts the interest expense component of the lease payment each year. In general, capital leases recognize expenses sooner than equivalent operating leases.

Since firms prefer to keep leases off the books and sometimes to defer expenses they have a strong incentive to report all leases as operating leases. Consequently the Financial Accounting Standards Board has ruled that a lease should be treated as a capital lease if it meets any one of the following four conditions.

(a) The lease life exceeds 75% of the life of the asset.

(b) There is a transfer of ownership to the lessee at the end of the lease term.

(c) There is an option to purchase the asset at a "bargain price" at the end of the lease term.

(d) The present value of the lease payments, discounted at an appropriate discount rate, exceeds 90% of the fair market value of the asset.

The lessor uses the same criteria for determining whether the lease is a capital or operating lease and accounts for it accordingly. If it is a capital lease, the lessor records the present value of future cash flows as revenue and recognizes expenses. The lease receivable is also shown as an asset on the balance sheet and the interest revenue is recognized over the term of the lease as paid.

From a tax standpoint, the lessor can claim the tax benefits of the leased asset only if it is an operating lease, though the revenue code uses slightly different criteria4 for determining whether the lease is an operating lease.

2. Employee Benefits

Employers provide pension and health care benefits to their employees. In many cases, the obligations created by these benefits are extensive and a failure by the firm to adequately fund these obligations needs to be revealed in financial statements.

a. Pension Plans

In a pension plan, the firm agrees to provide certain benefits to its employees, either by specifying a 'defined contribution' (wherein a fixed contribution is made to the plan each year by the employer, without any promises as to the benefits which will be delivered in the plan) or a 'defined benefit' (wherein the employer promises to pay a certain benefit to the employee). In the latter case, the employer has to put sufficient money into the plan each period to meet the defined benefits.

Under a defined contribution plan, the firm meets its obligation once it has made the pre-specified contribution to the plan. Under a defined-benefit plan, the firm's obligations are much more difficult to estimate, since they will be determined by a number of variables including the benefits that employees are entitled to, the prior contributions made by the employer, the returns the plan have earned, and the rate of return that the employer expects to make on current contributions. As these variables change, the value of the pension fund assets can be greater than, less than or equal to pension fund liabilities (which is the present value of promised benefits). A pension fund whose assets exceed its liabilities is an overfunded plan, whereas one whose assets are less than its liabilities is an under-funded plan and disclosures to that effect have to be included in financial statements, generally in the footnotes.

When a pension fund is over-funded, the firm has several options. It can withdraw the excess assets from the fund, it can discontinue contributions to the plan, or it can continue to make contributions on the assumption that the over-funding is a transitory phenomenon that could well disappear by the next period. When a fund is under-funded, the firm has a liability, though accounting standards require that firms reveal only the excess of accumulated pension fund liabilities over pension fund assets on the balance sheet.

b. Health Care Benefits

A firm can provide health care benefits in one of two ways: by making a fixed contribution to a health care plan, without promising specific benefits (analogous to a defined contribution plan), or by promising specific health benefits and setting aside the funds to provide these benefits (analogous to a defined benefit plan). The accounting for health care benefits is very similar to the accounting for pension obligations. The key difference between the two is that firms do not have to report the excess of their health care obligations over the health care fund assets as a liability on the balance sheet, though a footnote to that effect has to be added to the financial statement.

3. Deferred Taxes

Firms often use different methods of accounting for tax and financial reporting purposes, leading to a question of how tax liabilities should be reported. Since accelerated depreciation and favorable inventory valuation methods for tax accounting purposes lead to a deferral of taxes, the taxes on the income reported in the financial statements will generally be much greater than the actual tax paid. The same principles of matching expenses to income that underlie accrual accounting suggest that the 'deferred income tax' be recognized in the financial statements. Thus a company which pays taxes of $55,000 on its taxable income based upon its tax accounting, and which would have paid taxes of $75,000 on the income reported in its financial statements, will be forced to recognize the difference ($20,000) as deferred taxes in liabilities. Since the deferred taxes will be paid in later years, they will be recognized as paid.

It is worth noting that companies that actually pay more in taxes than the taxes they report in the financial statements create an asset on the balance sheet called a deferred tax asset. This reflects the fact that the firm's earnings in future periods will be greater as the firm is given credit for the deferred taxes.

The question of whether the deferred tax liability is really a liability is an interesting one. Firms do not owe the amount categorized as deferred taxes to any entity, and treating it as a liability makes the firm look more risky than it really is. On the other hand, the firm will eventually have to pay its deferred taxes, and treating it as a liability seems to be the conservative thing to do.

Preferred Stock

When a company issues preferred stock, it generally creates an obligation to pay a fixed dividend on the stock. Accounting rules have conventionally not viewed preferred stock as debt because the failure to meet preferred dividends does not result in bankruptcy. At the same time, the fact the preferred dividends are cumulative makes them more onerous than common equity. Thus, preferred stock is viewed in accounting as a hybrid security, sharing some characteristics with equity and some with debt.

Preferred stock is valued on the balance sheet at its original issue price, with any cumulated unpaid dividends added on. Convertible preferred stock is treated similarly, but it is treated as equity on conversion.


The accounting measure of equity is a historical cost measure. The value of equity shown on the balance sheet reflects the original proceeds received by the firm when it issued the equity, augmented by any earnings made since (or reduced by losses, if any) and reduced by any dividends paid out during the period. While these three items go into what we can call the book value of equity, a few other items also end up in this estimate.

1. When companies buy back stock for short periods, with the intent of reissuing the stock or using it to cover option exercises, they are allowed to show the repurchased stock as treasury stock, which reduces the book value of equity. Firms are not allowed to keep treasury stock on the books for extended periods and have to reduce their book value of equity by the value of repurchased stock in the case of actions such as stock buybacks. Since these buybacks occur at the current market price, they can result in significant reductions in the book value of equity.

2. Firms that have significant losses over extended periods or carry out massive stock buybacks can end up with negative book values of equity.

3. Relating back to our discussion of marketable securities, any unrealized gain or loss in marketable securities that are classified as available-for-sale is shown as an increase or decrease in the book value of equity in the balance sheet.

As part of their financial statements, firms provide a summary of changes in shareholders equity during the period, where all the changes that occurred to the accounting (book value) measure of equity value are summarized.

Accounting rules still do not seem to have come to grips with the effect of warrants and equity options (such as those granted by many firms to management) on the book value of equity. If warrants are issued to financial markets, the proceeds from this issue will show up as part of the book value of equity. In the far more prevalent case where options are given or granted to management, there is no effect on the book value of equity. When the options are exercised, the cash inflows from the exercise do ultimately show up in the book value of equity and there is a corresponding increase in the number of shares outstanding. The same point can be made about convertible bonds, which are treated as debt until conversion, at which point they become part of equity. In partial defense of accountants, we must note that the effect of options outstanding is often revealed when earnings and book value are computed on a per share basis. Here, the computation is made on two bases, the first on the current number of shares outstanding (primary shares outstanding) and the second on the number of shares outstanding after all options have been exercised (fully diluted shares outstanding).

Measuring Earnings and Profitability

Two primary principles underlie the measurement of accounting earnings and profitability. The first is the principle of accrual accounting. In accrual accounting, the revenue from selling a good or service is recognized in the period in which the good is sold or the service is performed (in whole or substantially). A corresponding effort is made on the expense side to match expenses to revenues. This is in contrast to cash accounting, where revenues are recognized when payment is received and expenses are recorded when they are paid.

The second principle is the categorization of expenses into operating, financing and capital expenses. Operating expenses are expenses that, at least in theory, provide benefits only for the current period; the cost of labor and materials expended to create products that are sold in the current period is a good example. Financing expenses are expenses arising from the non-equity financing used to raise capital for the business; the most common example is interest expenses. Capital expenses are expenses that are expected to generate benefits over multiple periods; for instance, the cost of buying land and buildings is treated as a capital expense.

Operating expenses are subtracted from revenues in the current period to arrive at a measure of operating earnings from the firm. Financing expenses are subtracted from operating earnings to estimate earnings to equity investors or net income. Capital expenses are written off over their useful life (in terms of generating benefits) as depreciation or amortization.

Measuring Accounting Earnings and Profitability

Since income can be generated from a number of different sources, generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) require that income statements be classified into four sections: income from continuing operations, income from discontinued operations, extraordinary gains or losses and adjustments for changes in accounting principles.

Generally accepted accounting principles require the recognition of revenues when the service for which the firm is getting paid has been performed in full or substantially and for which it has received in return either cash or a receivable that is both observable and measurable. Expenses linked directly to the production of revenues (like labor and materials) are recognized in the same period in which revenues are recognized. Any expenses that are not directly linked to the production of revenues are recognized in the period in which the firm consumes the services.

While accrual accounting is straightforward in firms that produce goods and sell them, there are special cases where accrual accounting can be complicated by the nature of the product or service being offered. For instance, firms that enter into long term contracts with their customers, for instance, are allowed to recognize revenue on the basis of the percentage of the contract that is completed. As the revenue is recognized on a percentage of completion basis, a corresponding proportion of the expense is also recognized. When there is considerable uncertainty about the capacity of the buyer of a good or service to pay for a service, the firm providing the good or service may recognize the income only when it collects portions of the selling price under the installment method.

Reverting back to our discussion of the difference between capital and operating expenses, operating expenses should reflect only those expenses that create revenues in the current period. In practice, however, a number of expenses are classified as operating expenses that do not seem to meet this test. The first is depreciation and amortization. While the notion that capital expenditures should be written off over multiple periods is reasonable, the accounting depreciation that is computed on the original historical cost often bears little resemblance to the actual economical depreciation. The second expense is research and development expenses, which accounting standards in the United States classify as operating expenses, but which clearly provide benefits over multiple periods. The rationale used for this classification is that the benefits cannot be counted on or easily quantified.

Much of financial analysis is built around the expected future earnings of a firm, and many of these forecasts start with the current earnings. It is therefore important that we know how much of these earnings come from the ongoing operations of the firm, and how much can be attributed to unusual or extraordinary events, that are unlikely to recur on a regular basis. From that standpoint, it is useful that firms categorize expenses into operating and nonrecurring expenses, since it is the earnings prior to extraordinary items that should be used in forecasting. Nonrecurring items include the following:

a. Unusual or Infrequent items, such as gains or losses from the divestiture of an asset or division and write-offs or restructuring costs. Companies sometimes include such items as part of operating expenses. As an example, Boeing in 1997 took a write-off of $1,400 million to adjust the value of assets it acquired in its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, and it showed this as part of operating expenses.

b. Extraordinary items, which are defined as events that are unusual in nature, infrequent in occurrence and material in impact. Examples include the accounting gain associated with refinancing high coupon debt with lower coupon debt, and gains or losses from marketable securities that are held by the firm.

c. Losses associated with discontinued operations, which measure both the loss from the phase out period and the estimated loss on the sale of the operations. To qualify, however, the operations have to be separable separated from the firm.

d. Gains or losses associated with accounting changes, which measure earnings changes created by accounting changes made voluntarily by the firm (such as a change in inventory valuation and change in reporting period) and accounting changes mandated by new accounting standards.

Taken from Investment Valuation by Aswath Damodaran (Second edition)

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