Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Earnings Quality Analysis: Operating Cash Flow to Net Income

In my intro to fundamental analysis, I focused on discrediting the P/E ratio as a viable means of gauging the relative value of a stock. The premise behind my campaign of disparagement was that net income, or the "E", is influenced by so many non-cash adjustments as to render its predictive value useless. In general, you could say that my complaints revolve around the concept of "earnings quality" (or lack thereof in many circumstances). Although earnings can consist of both cash and non-cash adjustments, I think we can all agree that earnings based on an increase in a company's cash position are of a higher quality than those which are not. Luckily, there's a useful ratio we can deploy against the income statement to determine the quality of a firm's reported earnings: Operating Cash Flow (CFFO) to Net Income

As the name implies, the ratio is calculated by dividing a company's operating cash flow by it's net income. Operating cash flow is an item found on the Statement of Cash Flows, and is often labeled "Cash Flows Provided by Operating Activities", or "Cash From Operating Activities". Basically, business activities are all placed in one of three categories: Operating, Investing, and Financing. Operating activities are the actions a company takes pursuant to its normal, or core business activities. For instance, a PC company like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) sells computers and printers as it's core operating activity; if HP sold a piece of land it owned, that cash increase would not appear as cash provided by operating activities. Once you've located your CFFO number, move over to the income statement and find net income. Make sure you use the after tax figure. Divide the two, and there you have your ratio.

Example: Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), 2008 fiscal year totals
Operating Cash Flow: $14,591M
Net Income: $8329M
CFFO to Net Income = $14591M / $8329M = 1.75

The following chart should put HP's 1.75 CFFO to Net Income ratio in perspective; it shows that same ratio for HP and 6 other large tech firms.When a company's CFFO to net income ratio rises above 1, it is indicative of a strong ability to fund it's activities through generation of operating cash flow. In other words, a higher ratio means that the firm's earnings are of a higher quality. Both Apple (AAPL) and Intel (INTC) were able to generate cash from operations that was nearly twice reported earnings. Dell (DELL) however, actually generated less cash from operations than it reported in net income. If I were an investor in Dell, I would probably keep an eye on this ratio in order to determine whether it was a chronic issue at the company. A CFFO to net income ratio which remains below 1 for an extended period of time could be an indication that the company will need to raise money to fund its operations.

Next installment: Free Cash Flow: The Alternate Bottom Line

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