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Strategic Value Investing: Company Analysis, Part 2


"Profits are nice, but you cannot pay suppliers, employees, creditors, or the owners with profits: You need cold, hard cash."



With those words, authors Stephen Horan, Robert R. Johnson and Thomas Robinson introduced the topic of cash flow statements in their 2014 book, "Strategic Value Investing: Practical Techniques of Leading Value Investors."

As in their discussion of income statements, the authors provided a mini case study based on Walmart's (NYSE:WMT) cash flow statement for the fiscal year ending on Jan. 31, 2011:

Strategic Value Investing cash flow statement
Strategic Value Investing cash flow statement 2

As we can immediately see, the cash flow statement is divided into three sections: operating cash flows, investing cash flows and financing cash flows.

Operating cash flows

This section shows the movement of cash involved in running Walmart. Customers pay the company for merchandise and, in turn, Walmart pays the suppliers and employees, as well as regular operating expenses for rent, utilities and so on.

We're told we should start with an overview, rather than diving into the details right away: "What are the company's major sources (and uses) of cash: operating, investing, or financing activities? Ideally, for a mature company, you will see most of the cash flows being generated from operating activities, while the company is using that cash to invest for the future (investing section) and return capital to investors and creditors (financing section)."

In the case of smaller companies or companies that are growing rapidly, the cash flow statement will look different. They will likely use more cash than they generate, so they will be raising capital from investors and creditors to cover the difference. Because of uncertainty about when these companies will become net generators, rather than net users of cash, they tend to get little attention from value investors.

The authors also encouraged readers to look at the relationship between net income and operating cash flow. Operating cash flow is expected to be higher than net income over the long term because of factors such as depreciation on plant and facilities. That need not be the case for any specific year.

If operating cash flow is routinely lower than net income, a closer examination is warranted. This would be acceptable for a company that is growing its business, but not if it's because the company has trouble collecting from its customers.

Investing cash flow

Where is the company investing its surplus cash flow? Walmart is using most of its cash to invest in property and equipment, both of which are turned into new stores; a more modest amount is going into acquisitions.

While the authors will write about it in more detail later, they wanted to introduce the idea of "free cash flow." This refers to the "excess" cash flow, the amount remaining after capital expenditures are subtracted from operating income. They wrote, "Value investors love to see companies that generate free cash flow because doing so indicates that the company can fund its own growth through operations with cash left over for the owners. It is a good sign that management is avoiding unwise capital investments, choosing instead to (hopefully) return the excess cash to shareholders in the form of dividends or stock repurchases."

Walmart, which generated about $11 billion of free cash flow in fiscal 2011, used its excess cash flow to return capital to shareholders in the form of dividends and by buying back its own stock from them. The authors added, "This is a good sign for value investors: Investors are receiving cash flows through dividends, and the company likely views its own stock as undervalued."

One last note on the investing cash flow section: Walmart is a net borrower since it is issuing more debt than it is repaying. That prompts the rhetorical question: "Shouldn't the company be paying down its debt with its excess cash flow?"

"No" would have been the response of the authors; because of low-interest rates, the company likely figures it can earn more on the borrowed capital than the borrowing costs. In the next section, the balance sheet, Walmart's debt situation will be examined to see if this level of debt is sustainable.

Balance sheet

This section of the financial statement shows the company's assets and obligations. These obligations are of two basic types: liabilities and equity. Liabilities refers to the claims of suppliers, employees, lenders and other creditors. Equity refers to the claims of owners, who are almost always common shareholders, and preferred stockholders (although there may be other equity claimants as well).

All of this adds up to a financial position at a specific point in time, the last day of a quarter or a year. That's unlike the income statement and cash flow statement that show a quarter or a year's worth of activities.

Balance sheet analysis focuses on two issues: liquidity and solvency. Liquidity refers to a company's ability to pay its short-term liabilities, while solvency refers to its ability to handle its long-term obligations.

We measure liquidity by determining whether a company's current assets (those that can be converted into cash within a year) are greater than its current liabilities (those that need to be paid with one year). Walmart has fewer current assets than current liabilities, which would be a problem for a cash-strapped company, but Walmart has what the authors called "extraordinary" operating cash flow. It is in no danger of being unable to pay its short-term debts.

Solvency addresses the use of debt, or financial leverage. Generally, the more leverage the company has, the greater the danger of going bankrupt, which means becoming insolvent. Referring to Walmart, the authors concluded, "Overall, the company's financial leverage has increased, but it is not terribly worrisome because it looks to be a purposeful response to the low interest rate environment. In addition, the stability of Walmart's operations support moderate debt levels well."

Conclusion

As with the income statement, the cash flow statement may be made up of numbers, but those numbers tell important stories for those who read them.

The operating cash flow numbers show us how well management is doing at running the company, as we compare the amounts of cash coming into the business and going out again. The investing cash flow data tells us what the company is doing with its excess cash flow, especially if it is being used to create more value for shareholders. And the balance sheet displays a company's assets, liabilities and equity in one place, so investors might know how well it is positioned to take care of short-term and long-term obligations.

Disclosure: I do not own shares in any company listed, and do not expect to buy any in the next 72 hours.

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This article first appeared on GuruFocus.