Unlike in the accrual accounting world, cash flow is an efficient way for investors to measure a company’s financial health and operational strength. The whole idea of recognizing revenues when realized or realizable can be tricky when an investor has to make a financial decision regarding a certain company. Whereas, having a good understanding of where the money is coming from and how it is being used is much more helpful for an investor. However, calculating and analyzing cash flow isn’t as easy as finding the difference between what money came in and what money went out in a company’s cash register. The difficulty arises from the tricks that companies use to manipulate their cash flow statement. Companies often try to promote the good and hide the bad in their financial reports, which is why the cash-flow statement has seen some manipulation over the years. The following explains how this is done.
When looking at a cash flow statement, there are three sections that the statement is divided into: operating, investing and financing. The most important section to an investor would be the operating section because this is where one can find the money a company is generating from its operations. Investors want to see more cash generated from a company’s operations rather than from borrowing or equity transactions.
Unfortunately, it is not always clear where a company is generating its cash from. One way company’s skew their operating section is through the misclassification of inventory purchases. The costs of purchasing inventory that eventually will be sold to customers, should be classified as an item in the operating section of the cash flow statement. However, some companies disagree and feel that purchasing of inventory is an investing outflow, which would increase operating cash flows. One should question this method of accounting because large investing outflows shouldn’t occur as part of a company’s normal cost of operations.
In addition to misclassifying inventory purchases many companies capitalize some expenses which increases a company’s bottom line. When a company capitalizes costs, they write off the cost of an asset gradually, in installments, instead of taking all the costs at once. This allows companies to record the cash going out as an investing activity, because the cash going out is considered an investment, rather than a deduction from net income or the operating section. As a result, the companies cash flow from operations will remain the same and look much better than it really is.
Next, companies give their operating cash a boost by selling their accounts receivables. This speeds up a company’s cash collections, but it also forces the company to accept fewer dollars than if the company had waited for customers to pay. This action can have a negative impact on a company’s operating section. The decline in accounts receivable means more cash has come in through the sale of receivables, but this would give investors the wrong message. By accelerating collections a company isn’t improving operations, they are just finding another way to boost the operating section of the statement.
Another cash flow statement manipulation is through the account payables. Sometimes there is a substantial increase in the accounts payable line item which would mean payments are not being made to suppliers. If these payables are left open for a long period of time, then a company receives free financing, which increases the operating section inaccurately.
All of these examples are ways that companies can easily manipulate their operating section. These examples give companies an opportunity to show that they have more money at their disposal for operating expense than they actually do. For instance, in 2000 Enron reported it had over $4 billion cash flow from operations, which in reality was overstated by $1.5 billion.
This manipulation caused Enron’s stock value to increase, which in turn led to Enron’s collapse. Another example in 2002, Tyco International delayed paying its executives their first quarter bonuses to increase the company’s operating cash flow for the quarter. This move caused the company’s operating cash flow to wrongly increase by $200 million.
The above examples show how easy it is for the cash flow statement to be manipulated.This goes to show that investors should be careful when looking at this particular financial statement. An investor should be consciences of any manipulation that can cause dishonest financial information. In conclusion, the cash flow statement is the most useful financial statement to an investor, but just as cash easily switches hands, the cash flow statement can just as easily be manipulated.
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