A company's financial statements - balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement - are a key source of data for analyzing the investment value of its stock. Stock investors, both the do-it-yourselfers and those who follow the guidance of an investment professional, don't need to be analytical experts to perform financial statement analysis. Today, there are numerous sources of independent stock research, online and in print, which can do the "number crunching" for you. However, if you're going to become a serious stock investor, a basic understanding of the fundamentals of financial statement usage is a must. In this article, we help you to become more familiar with the overall structure of the balance sheet.

The Structure of a Balance Sheet
A company's balance sheet is comprised of assets, liabilities and equity. Assets represent things of value that a company owns and has in its possession or something that will be received and can be measured objectively. Liabilities are what a company owes to others - creditors, suppliers, tax authorities, employees etc. They are obligations that must be paid under certain conditions and time frames. A company's equity represents retained earnings and funds contributed by its shareholders, who accept the uncertainty that comes with ownership risk in exchange for what they hope will be a good return on their investment.

The relationship of these items is expressed in the fundamental balance sheet equation:

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

The meaning of this equation is important. Generally sales growth, whether rapid or slow, dictates a larger asset base - higher levels of inventory, receivables and fixed assets (plant, property and equipment). As a company's assets grow, its liabilities and/or equity also tends to grow in order for its financial position to stay in balance.

How assets are supported, or financed, by a corresponding growth in payables, debt liabilities and equity reveals a lot about a company's financial health. For now, suffice it to say that depending on a company's line of business and industry characteristics, possessing a reasonable mix of liabilities and equity is a sign of a financially healthy company. While it may be an overly simplistic view of the fundamental accounting equation, investors should view a much bigger equity value compared to liabilities as a measure of positive investment quality, because possessing high levels of debt can increase the likelihood that a business will face financial troubles.

Balance Sheet Formats
Standard accounting conventions present the balance sheet in one of two formats: the account form (horizontal presentation) and the report form (vertical presentation). Most companies favor the vertical report form, which doesn't conform to the typical explanation in investment literature of the balance sheet as having "two sides" that balance out. (For more information on how to decipher balance sheets, see Reading The Balance Sheet.)

Whether the format is up-down or side-by-side, all balance sheets conform to a presentation that positions the various account entries into five sections:         
Assets = Liabilities + Equity
Current assets (short-term): items that are convertible into cash within one year
• Non-current assets (long-term): items of a more permanent nature

As total assets these =

Current liabilities (short-term): obligations due within one year
• Non-current liabilities (long-term): obligations due beyond one year

These total liabilities +

Shareholders' equity (permanent): shareholders' investment and retained earnings

Account Presentation

In the asset sections mentioned above, the accounts are listed in the descending order of their liquidity (how quickly and easily they can be converted to cash). Similarly, liabilities are listed in the order of their priority for payment. In financial reporting, the terms current and non-current are synonymous with the terms short-term and long-term, respectively, and are used interchangeably. (For related reading, see The Working Capital Position.)

It should not be surprising that the diversity of activities included among publicly-traded companies is reflected in balance sheet account presentations. The balance sheets of utilities, banks, insurance companies, brokerage and investment banking firms and other specialized businesses are significantly different in account presentation from those generally discussed in investment literature. In these instances, the investor will have to make allowances and/or defer to the experts.

Lastly, there is little standardization of account nomenclature. For example, even the balance sheet has such alternative names as a "statement of financial position" and "statement of condition". Balance sheet accounts suffer from this same phenomenon. Fortunately, investors have easy access to extensive dictionaries of financial terminology to clarify an unfamiliar account entry. (To search a financial term, see our dictionary.)

The Importance of Dates
A balance sheet represents a company's financial position for one day at its fiscal year end, for example, the last day of its accounting period, which can differ from our more familiar calendar year. Companies typically select an ending period that corresponds to a time when their business activities have reached the lowest point in their annual cycle, which is referred to as their natural business year.

In contrast, the income and cash flow statements reflect a company's operations for its whole fiscal year - 365 days. Given this difference in "time", when using data from the balance sheet (akin to a photographic snapshot) and the income/cash flow statements (akin to a movie) it is more accurate, and is the practice of analysts, to use an average number for the balance sheet amount. This practice is referred to as "averaging", and involves taking the year-end (2004 and 2005) figures - let's say for total assets - and adding them together, and dividing the total by two. This exercise gives us a rough but useful approximation of a balance sheet amount for the whole year 2005, which is what the income statement number, let's say net income, represents. In our example, the number for total assets at year-end 2005 would overstate the amount and distort the return on assets ratio (net income/total assets).

Since a company's financial statements are the basis of analyzing the investment value of a stock, this discussion we have completed should provide investors with the "big picture" for developing an understanding of balance sheet basics.

Richard Loth has more than three decades of international experience in banking (Citibank, Industrial National Bank, and Bank of Montreal), corporate financial consulting, and non-profit development assistance programs. During the past 12 years, he has been a registered investment adviser and a published author of books and publications on investing. Currently, he devotes his professional activities to educational endeavors, writing and lecturing, aimed at helping individual investors improve their investing know-how (see www.lothinvest.com)