There are three important parts of a company's financial statements: the balance sheet, the income statement and the cash flow statement. The balance sheet gives a one-time snapshot of a company's assets and liabilities (see Reading the Balance Sheet). And the income statement indicates the business's profitability during a certain period (see Understanding The Income Statement).
The cash flow statement differs from these other financial statements because it acts as a kind of corporate checkbook that reconciles the other two statements. Simply put, the cash flow statement records the company's cash transactions (the inflows and outflows) during the given period. It shows whether all those lovely revenues booked on the income statement have actually been collected. At the same time, however, remember that the cash flow does not necessarily show all the company's expenses: not all expenses the company accrues have to be paid right away. So even though the company may have incurred liabilities it must eventually pay, expenses are not recorded as a cash outflow until they are paid (see the section "What Cash Flow Doesn't Tell Us" below).
The following is a list of the various areas of the cash flow statement and what they mean:
Cash flow from operating activities - This section measures the cash used or provided by a company's normal operations. It shows the company's ability to generate consistently positive cash flow from operations. Think of "normal operations" as the core business of the company. For example, Microsoft's normal operating activity is selling software.
Cash flows from investing activities - This area lists all the cash used or provided by the purchase and sale of income-producing assets. If Microsoft, again our example, bought or sold companies for a profit or loss, the resulting figures would be included in this section of the cash flow statement.
Cash flows from financing activities - This section measures the flow of cash between a firm and its owners and creditors. Negative numbers can mean the company is servicing debt but can also mean the company is making dividend payments and stock repurchases, which investors might be glad to see.
When you look at a cash flow statement, the first thing you should look at is the bottom line item that says something like "net increase/decrease in cash and cash equivalents", since this line reports the overall change in the company's cash and its equivalents (the assets that can be immediately converted into cash) over the last period. If you check under current assets on the balance sheet, you will find cash and cash equivalents (CCE or CC&E). If you take the difference between the current CCE and last year's or last quarter's, you'll get this same number found at the bottom of the statement of cash flows.
In the sample Microsoft annual cash flow statement (from June 2004) shown below, we can see that the company ended up with about $9.5 billion more cash at the end of its 2003/04 fiscal year than it had at the beginning of that fiscal year (see "Net Change in Cash and Equivalents"). Digging a little deeper, we see that the company had a negative cash outflow of $2.7 billion from investment activities during the year (see "Net Cash from Investing Activities"); this is likely from the purchase of long-term investments, which have the potential to generate a profit in the future.Generally, a negative cash flow from investing activities are difficult to judge as either good or bad - these cash outflows are investments in future operations of the company (or another company); the outcome plays out over the long term.
The "Net Cash from Operating Activities" reveals that Microsoft generated $14.6 billion in positive cash flow from its usual business operations - a good sign. Notice the company has had similar levels of positive operating cash flow for several years. If this number were to increase or decrease significantly in the upcoming year, it would be a signal of some underlying change in the company's ability to generate cash.
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