When analyzing financial statements, financial ratios are key in assessing whether a company’s stock is worth buying. Context is this process is crucial, because without it a company’s value, how it compares to its competitors, and the various trends developing around it cannot be properly measured.
Financial ratios are an important element of financial statement analysis and can be a big help in assessing whether a company’s stock is worth buying.
In isolation, a financial ratio is a useless piece of information – context is everything. Once it is put into the correct context, however, a financial ratio can give a financial analyst an excellent picture of where a company stands among its competitors and the trends that are developing within and around it.
For the ratio to become useful, it must be compared to other data and standards.
The Importance of Context
The importance of proper context for ratio analysis cannot be stressed enough. You won’t get any useful information from a cross-industry comparison of the leverage of stable utility companies and cyclical mining companies. If you set out to examine a cyclical company’s profitability ratios over less than a full commodity or business cycle, you’ll never get an accurate long-term measure of profitability.
Likewise, using historical data independent of fundamental changes in a company’s situation or prospects won’t give you any insight into future trends. The historical ratios of a company that has undergone a merger or had a substantive change in its technology or market position will say little about the prospects for this company.
Calculating Financial Ratios
Financial ratios are calculated from one or more pieces of information from a company’s financial statements. For example, the “gross margin” is the gross profit from operations divided by the total sales or revenues of a company, expressed in percentage terms.
A gross profit margin for a company of 25% is meaningless by itself, but if you know that this company’s competitors have profit margins of 10%, you can now surmise that it’s more profitable than its industry peers, which gives you a positive indicator of its value.
If you also know that the historical trend is upwards and has been increasing steadily for the last few years, you may infer that management is implementing effective policies and strategies.
Financial ratio analysis groups these indicators into various categories an analyst can use to figure out what different facets of a company’s finances and operations say about its attractiveness as an investment.
- Leverage Ratios show the extent to which debt is used in a company’s capital structure.
- Liquidity Ratios give a picture of a company’s short-term financial situation, or solvency.
- Operational Ratios use turnover measures to show how efficient a company is in its operations and use of its assets.
- Profitability Ratios use margin analysis and show the return on sales and capital employed.
- Solvency Ratios give a picture of a company’s ability to generate cash flow and pay its financial obligations.
The people interpreting financial ratios from the prospects of a lender are credit analysts. They tend to focus on the “downside” risk, since they gain none of the upside from an improvement in operations. They pay great attention to liquidity and leverage ratios to ascertain a company’s financial risk.
Equity analysts look more to the operational and profitability ratios to determine the future profits that will accrue to the shareholder.
Unique Styles of Financial Ratio Analysis
Although financial ratio analysis is well developed and the actual ratios are well known, practicing financial analysts often develop their own measures for particular industries, and even for individual companies.
Analysts will often differ drastically in their conclusions of the same ratio analysis.
As in all things financial, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, so it pays to do your own work!