Balance sheets are a good snapshot of a company's assets and liabilities at a given point in time. They can be intimidating -- until you take a little time to understand how they're set up, and what they can tell you.
Let's examine clothing retailer Gap
Glancing at the balance sheet for the 2006 quarter, we see $2.8 billion in cash and cash equivalents (which usually includes short-term investments), up 8% from the previous year. A growing pile of cash such as this would generally be promising, while a trend of declining cash could signal trouble.
You generally want to see a manageable amount of debt. Between the first quarters of 2005 and 2006, Gap's long-term debt stayed steady at $513 million -- a good sign. It's also substantially down from the nearly $1.9 billion in long-term debt the company had at the end of January 2005. And we can always peek at the footnotes in the financial statements to check out the interest rates and the company's interest coverage ratio (earnings before interest and taxes divided by interest expense). A higher ratio would indicate that the company is financing operations effectively, in which case the absolute debt level is not a concern. If the ratio is less than 1, it indicates that the company is not generating enough money to satisfy its interest obligations.
Accounts receivable are also worth examining. Gap doesn't actually have accounts receivable, but if it did, you'd want to see them keeping pace with sales growth. If receivables were outpacing sales growth, that would be a red flag, requiring a little further investigation.
Finally, look at the "quick ratio." Subtract inventory from current assets, then divide by current liabilities. Gap's result is 1.58, a figure that shows there's enough cash (and assets readily convertible into cash) on hand to cover obligations.
Many investors focus only on sales and earnings growth, calculated from the income statement. While that's an important metric, long-term investors should also study the balance sheet to gauge the sturdiness of the underlying business.
Shruti Basavaraj, Adrian Rush, and LouAnn DiCosmo updated this article, which was originally written by Selena Maranjian. Shruti and Adrian do not own shares of Gap, though LouAnn does. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.