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Understanding Financial Liquidity

Jim Mueller

Do you know how much easily accessible money you have in the form of cash and equivalents? This is a measure of your liquidity. As you'll see, this concept plays a role in your financial and investing lives and those of the companies you buy and sell. Starting from a definition of liquidity with examples of different types, we'll move on to a discussion of how banks play a role in keeping liquidity available. We'll then look at liquidity from an investor's viewpoint in terms of the stock market. Finally, we'll end off with a brief look at a couple of financial ratios that can be used to evaluate a company's liquidity.

What Is Liquidity?
Liquidity is the term used to describe how easy it is to convert assets to cash. The most liquid asset, and what everything else is compared to, is cash. This is because it can always be used easily and immediately.Certificates of deposit are slightly less liquid, because there is usually a penalty for converting them to cash before their maturity date. Savings bonds are also quite liquid, since they can be sold at a bank fairly easily. Finally, shares of stock, bonds, options and commodities are considered fairly liquid, because they can usually be sold readily and you can receive the cash within a few days. Each of the above can be considered as cash or cash equivalents because they can be converted to cash with little effort, although sometimes with a slight penalty. Moving down the scale, we run into assets that take a bit more effort or time before they can be realized as cash. One example would be preferred or restricted shares, which usually have covenants dictating how and when they might be sold. Other examples are items like coins, stamps, art and other collectibles. If you were to sell to another collector, you might get full value but it could take a while, even with the internet easing the way. If you go to a dealer instead, you could get cash more quickly, but you may receive less of it. The least liquid asset is usually considered to be real estate because that can take weeks or months to sell.When we invest in any assets, we need to keep their liquidity levels in mind because it can be difficult or time consuming to convert certain assets back into cash.

Other than selling an asset, cash can be obtained by borrowing against it. While this may be done privately between two people, it is more often done through a bank. A bank has the cash from many depositors pooled together and can more easily meet the needs of any borrower.Furthermore, if a depositor needs cash right away, that person can just withdraw it from the bank rather than going to the borrower and demanding payment of the entire note. Thus, banks act as financial intermediaries between lenders and borrowers, allowing for a smooth flow of money and meeting the needs of each side of a loan.Liquidity and the Stock Market
In the market, liquidity has a slightly different meaning, although still tied to how easily assets, in this case shares of stock, can be converted to cash. The market for a stock is said to be liquid if the shares can be rapidly sold and the act of selling has little impact on the stock's price. Generally, this translates to where the shares are traded and the level of interest that investors have in the company. Company stock traded on the major exchanges can usually be considered liquid. Often, approximately 1% of the float trades hands daily, indicating a high degree of interest in the stock. On the other hand, company stock traded on the pink sheets or over the counter are often non-liquid, with very few, even zero, shares traded daily.Another way to judge liquidity in a company's stock is to look at the bid/ask spread. For liquid stocks, such as Microsoft or General Electric, the spread is often just a few pennies - much less than 1% of the price. For illiquid stocks, the spread can be much larger, amounting to a few percent of the trading price. One thing to note as an investor when placing an order, is the liquidity of the stock. During normal market hours on the major exchanges, placing a limit order will get you the price you are looking for. This is particularly true for companies that are non-liquid, or during after-hours trading when fewer traders are active; at these times, it is better to place a limit order because the lower liquidity may lead to a price you would not be willing to pay. Liquidity and Companies
One last understanding of liquidity is especially important for investors: the liquidity of companies that we may wish to invest in.Cash is a company's lifeblood. In other words, a company can sell lots of widgets and have good net earnings, but if it can't collect the actual cash from its customers on a timely basis, it will soon fold up, unable to pay its own obligations. Several ratios look at how easily a company can meet its current obligations. One of these is the current ratio, which compares the level of current assets to current liabilities. Remember that in this context, "current" means collectible or payable within one year. Depending on the industry, companies with good liquidity will usually have a current ratio of more than two. This shows that a company has the resources on hand to meet its obligations and is less likely to borrow money or enter bankruptcy. A more stringent measure is the quick ratio, sometimes called the acid test ratio. This uses current assets (excluding inventory) and compares them to current liabilities. Inventory is removed because, of the various current assets such as cash, short-term investments or accounts receivable, this is the most difficult to convert into cash. A value of greater than one is usually considered good from a liquidity viewpoint, but this is industry dependent. One last ratio of note is the debt/equity ratio, usually defined as total liabilities divided by stockholders' equity. While this does not measure a company's liquidity directly, it is related. Generally, companies with a higher debt/equity ratio will be less liquid, as more of their available cash must be used to service and reduce the debt. This leaves less cash for other purposes.Bottom Line
Liquidity is important for both individuals and companies. While a person may be rich in terms of total value of assets owned, that person may also end up in trouble if he or she is unable to convert those assets into cash. The same holds true for companies. Without cash coming in the door, they can quickly get into trouble with their creditors. Banks are important for both groups, providing financial intermediation between those who need cash and those who can offer it, thus keeping the cash flowing. An understanding of the liquidity of a company's stock within the market helps investors judge when to buy or sell shares. Finally, an understanding of a company's own liquidity helps investors avoid those that might run into trouble in the near future.

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