Although headlines still spray earnings figures all over the media every day, many investors have moved past net earnings as a measure of a company's economic output. That's because earnings are very often less trustworthy than cash flow, since earnings are more open to manipulation based on dubious judgment calls.

Earnings' unreliability is one of the reasons Foolish investors often flip straight past the income statement to eyeball the cash flow statement. In general, by taking a close look at the cash moving in and out of the business, you can better understand whether the last batch of earnings brought money into the company, or merely disguised a cash gusher with a pretty headline.

Calling all cash flows
It's worth checking up on your companies' free cash flow (FCF) once a quarter or so, to see whether it bears any relationship to the net income in the headlines. That brings us to Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI), which has produced $1.012 billion in FCF over the trailing 12 months, compared to $305 million in net income.


That means that Activision Blizzard turned 22% of its revenue into FCF. That looks amazing. Still, it always pays to compare that figure to sector and industry peers and competitors, to see how your company stacks up.

Company

Revenue (TTM)

FCF (TTM)

FCF Margin (TTM)

 Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)

 $59,544

 $20,224

34%

 LodgeNet Interactive (Nasdaq: LNET)

 $474

 $73

15%

 Konami

 $3,006

 $91

3%

 Namco Bandai Holdings

 $4,341

 $39

1%

 Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS)

 $3,654

 $(153)

-4%

Among its competitors and peers, Microsoft comes in with the highest FCF margin (defined as FCF / trailing-12-month revenue), with 34% of its revenue turning into FCF. But Microsoft's FCF comes from operating systems and other software. Its gaming division is just taking off. The best comparison is probably Electronic Arts, which right now can't come close to the FCF margin at Activision Blizzard.

All cash is not equal
Unfortunately, the cash flow statement isn't immune from nonsense, either. That's why it pays to take a close look at the components of cash flow from operations, to make sure that the cash comes from high-quality sources. They need to be real and replicable in the upcoming quarters, rather than being offset by continual cash outflows that don't appear on the income statement (such as major capital expenditures). For instance, cash flow based on cash net income and adjustments for non-cash income-statement expenses (like depreciation) is generally favorable. An increase in cash flow based on stiffing your suppliers (by increasing accounts payable) or shortchanging Uncle Sam on taxes will come back to bite investors later. The same goes for decreasing accounts receivable; this is good to see, but it's ordinary in recessionary times, and you can only increase collections so much.

So, how does the cash flow at Activision Blizzard look? Take a peek at the chart below, which flags questionable cash flow sources with a red bar.


When I say "questionable cash flow sources," I mean line items such as changes in taxes payable, tax benefits from stock options, and asset sales, among others. That's not to say that companies booking these as sources of cash flow are weak, or are engaging in any sort of wrongdoing, or that everything that comes up questionable in my graph is automatically bad news. But whenever a company is getting more than, say, 10% of its cash from operations from these dubious sources, I feel obliged to crack open the filings and dig even deeper, to make sure I'm in touch with its true cash profitability.

With questionable cash sources composing 21% of the cash flow from operations for Activision Blizzard, I think it's time to do a little more digging. The cash flows are boosted by $170 million worth of adjustment for the "non-cash" expense of stock-based compensation -- but then the company spent $903 million buying back shares over the same period. Also tucked away in the cash flow statement is a $410 million adjustment for a big asset impairment charge. However, "non-cash" now merely means the cash was wasted when the assets were acquired for a price that's now considered hundreds of millions of dollars too high.

A Foolish final thought
If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're probably ahead of 95% of the market's individual investors. By keeping an eye on the health of your companies' cash flow, you can spot potential trouble early, or figure out whether the numbers merit Mr. Market's pessimism. Let us know what you think of the health of the cash flows at Activision Blizzard in the comments box below. Or, if you're itching to learn more, head on over to our quotes page to view the filings directly.

At the time of publication, Seth Jayson had no position in any company mentioned here. He is co-advisor of Motley Fool Hidden Gems, which provides new small-cap ideas every month, backed by a real-money portfolio. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts are Motley Fool Stock Advisor choices. Motley Fool Options has recommended a synthetic long position on Activision Blizzard. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.