LIKE THE PSR, this ratio is another response to investor distrust of net earnings. Many stock analysts think it gives a better picture of a company's true earning power than does the net income figure. The problem is, there are several ways to define cash flow and it is always a little tricky to calculate. And to understand how it works, you first need a quick lesson in how earnings and expenses are recorded.
So here goes. Accounting rules require that a company lay out its profits or losses in a standard table called the Income Statement. At the top of the table is a figure for total sales (revenue). Expenses of various types are subtracted as you move down the page. The "bottom line" is net income.
Some of those expenses represent the direct cost of producing a company's goods or services. Others -- like depreciation on equipment -- are costs, but don't involve a cash outlay of any sort. Still others -- like taxes and financing costs -- are more administrative in nature. The farther down the income statement you go, the more a company's accountants can fiddle with assumptions to make their net earnings look better. So analysts look for a number -- called cash flow -- that is higher up the statement and that backs out everything but the real cost of doing business.
As we've said, there are any number of cash-flow formulas that add and subtract various types of expenses. Cable-television companies, for instance, carry a lot of debt to finance the ongoing construction of their networks. So when comparing them, analysts tend to use a cash-flow formula that backs out the cost of that debt. Why? They want to know how much money the companies generate from their networks, not how much their debt costs. That they examine separately.
Our view, however, is that most companies should be compared with the impact of their financing costs showing. What qualifies as a low number? Anything below 20 is worth a look. But, as always, you have to compare a company to its industry.