How to Value Stocks: How to Read a Balance Sheet

Publicly traded companies are designed to make money. To find successful stocks, most investors examine a company's ability to grow its various types of earnings. But there's another, clearer way to suss out a company's real value: look at the liquid assets on its balance sheet.

Balance what? Liquid who?
The balance sheet is a record of a company's assets and liabilities -- in short, what it's already got or expects to get soon, and what it owes to others.

Shareholder value ultimately comes from liquid assets -- assets that can easily be converted into cash. The amount of liquid assets a company can amass ultimately determines its value. Better yet, if a company generates more liquid assets than it needs to fund its operations, it can give the excess back to shareholders in the form of dividends or share buybacks.

There are two ways to measure liquid assets. The first is terminal value -- how much the company would return to shareholders if, at some future point, it closed down all its operations and turned everything into cash. The second is tangible shareholder value -- the returns on invested capital generated by the company's operations.

Most investors spend too much time obsessing over a company's earnings, and too little time studying the balance sheet and its cousin, the statement of cash flows. The balance sheet can tell you whether a company's got enough money to keep funding growth, or whether it'll have to take on debt or issue bonds or additional stock to sustain itself. Does a company have too much of its money tied up in inventory? Is the company collecting money from its customers reasonably quickly? The balance sheet knows all.

Where can I find the balance sheet?
Believe it or not, you can get it for free. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and its EDGAR website give you all sorts of balance sheet information in a company's 10-K and 10-Q reports.

The 10-K is a toned-down, once-a-year version of a company's annual report, with more text and fewer pretty pictures; it contains the company's balance sheet for the entire fiscal year. The 10-Q is a quarterly filing that a company makes with the SEC three times a year (the fourth yearly filing is the 10-K). The 10-Q reports also track a company's balance sheet through the course of the year. Note that unlike its quarterly compatriots, the 10-K's balance sheet is double-checked by accountants before it's filed with the SEC.

Now that you know what a balance sheet is, why it matters, and where to find it, you're ready to dive in.

More on reading a balance sheet:

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2008, at 4:46 AM, willbenz wrote:

    Please give some example, how to do the balance sheet?Give a question then the answer.So, we can learn the proper way to do the balance sheet, not only the balance sheet but the rest.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2009, at 3:32 PM, Kelpel wrote:

    I agree. Can you provide some practical examples. That would make a HUGE difference.


  • Report this Comment On March 30, 2009, at 12:50 AM, sandrick wrote:

    don't need any examples...they are in Reuters to read at the bottom and some in the "financials" tab.

    Thanx for the insight. Great reading.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2009, at 1:42 PM, rwildwilly wrote:

    Hypothetically speaking, our club has $100,000 in a stock account. This is actual cash value. Our accountant insists on showing this as & $112,000 on tghe balance sheet. I say this is incorrect. Please tell me who is correct.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2009, at 9:10 PM, Pavleen1 wrote:

    The articles are only a start in the general direction of where the information is but useless in truly beginning to understand how to get a valuation from the information found on the balance sheets. They tell you where to look and give a general idea of what you're looking at but shed no light on or give any real clue as to "sussing" out the company's real value from the numbers found.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2014, at 9:36 AM, Jicha wrote:

    i agree with the first 2 responses. the whole time i'm reading, i'm thinking it would nice to have a point of reference on all these terms. as for the 3rd comment, wé're not on reuters or some "financials" tab.

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