Book value is an accounting concept that reflects a company's value according to its balance sheet. It's equal to shareholders' equity, or the difference between assets and liabilities.
But is it a good measure of a company's worth? Book value once approximated a company's market value, when most assets, such as factories and land, were capital-intensive and appeared on the balance sheet. Today, however, as America's economy has become less industrial and more service-oriented, book value is a less relevant measure for investors.
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Book value can be a poor indicator of fair value for even a heavily industrial company. Imagine a company that owns a lot of land and many buildings. Over the years, the value of these assets is depreciated on the balance sheet, eventually to zero. But these assets are rarely worthless and can even appreciate in value over time. Such a company might actually be worth a lot more than its book value, while other companies can be worth much less. For these reasons, it often makes sense to largely ignore book value.
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Selena Maranjian, Shruti Basavaraj, and Adrian Rush contributed to this article.