How Do you Account for Cash?

I have been doing some advisory work for a client and the subject got on to the importance of cash flow.  This is such a critical topic for small businesses that I thought it was worth publishing a Six Minute Strategist post about it

What is Cash flow?  Profits measure the performance of a business over a period of time but in order to show a true picture, accounting rules and conventions use accrual accounting to smooth out timing differences.  The result is normally that profits measured at any point in time rarely equal cash.  Cash flow is therefore the actual cash generated by a business on a day to day basis.

How do you calculate Cash Flow?

Lets concentrate for the moment on Cash Flow from Operations. (We can get on to Financing and Investment Cash Flows in due course).  Operational Cash Flow is the cash generated by the business.

The first part is the positive side of the equation – the cash generated from customers.  Essentially this is sales.  However, the recording of a sale and the receipt of the cash for that sale can be weeks or months apart.  The debtors or receivables account records the sale until it is paid off by the client settling his invoice.  In cash flow terms, this is a USE of cash – i.e. your cash is tied up until the customer sends you the money.  When measuring cash flow, it is important to look at the increase in the asset side of the working capital account and make sure that this is fundable.

On the other side of the account, the creditors or payables side, you record the accounts to whom you owe money.  This can include payments to your suppliers, tax and social security, heating, rents and rates.  If this account increases – i.e. you do not pay your suppliers, they are funding your business and it is a SOURCE of cash.

These movements in working capital are the key measures against which you can calculate the actual cash generated by your business, week to week and month to month.

Another area to watch carefully is the Non-Cash Adjustments to your profit figure – predominantly depreciation and amortisation.  These are long term adjustments to balance sheet assets reflecting the gradual use of these assets over time.  They do not involve any cash going out of the business.  That happened when you acquired the asset.  Operating cash flow is therefore adjusted for any not cash elements before calculating the changes in working capital.

Investment Cash Flows are the capital and operational expenditures into your business.  These items are reflected in the balance sheet and not the profit and loss account unless your accounting policies specifically enable you to write these off as incurred.  Be mindful of the tax implications too (beyond the scope of this post and my expertise too!)

Financing Cash Flows are monies received by the business to further enable it to fund itself.  These can be in the form of  wide variety of financial instruments; debt, equity, convertibles etc.  The negative side of these entries are the repayments made by the company to these investors and funders and include dividends.

How can you measure Liquidity?

If cash flow is the life blood of a business, liquidity is a measure of its fitness – its ability to respond to adverse events.  There are three ratios which we can look at – the Current Ratio, the Quick Ratio and the Operating Cash Flow Ratio.  These are simple to use and you can use them in your business by simply opening your report and accounts.

The Current Ratio is a measure of the relationship between current assets and liabilities.  In short, do you have enough assets (people owing you money) to repay your liabilities (people to whom you owe money).  The slight catch here is that if you had to try to liquidate your receivables quickly would you be able to get full value for them.

The Quick Ratio deducts inventories and prepayments from current assets and then divides the remainder by current liabilities.  This recognises that some of these assets are not readily fungible (not easy to turn into cash at short notice).

The Operating Cash Flow ratio divides the operating cash flow from the business by the current liabilities and recognises the ability of the business to settle its creditors and other monies owing from operational cash flow and does not involve the sale of any current assets.

Why is this important?

One of the greatest risks faced by growing companies is something called “Over Trading”.  This happens when the company grows too fast.  The debtors/current assets of the business expand too fast and the company is unable to fund the timing gap between selling a product or service and recovering the cash for this from its clients.  At times like this, companies may need financial investment or loans from their banks and if this has not been anticipated in advance it can lead to substantial dilution for equity holders or in the worst case, the failure of the business in its entirety.

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