Cash Flow: What It Is, How It Works, and How to Analyze It (2024)

What Is Cash Flow?

Cash flow is the net cash and cash equivalents transferred in and out of a company. Cash received represents inflows, while money spent represents outflows. A company creates value for shareholders through its ability to generate positive cash flows and maximize long-term free cash flow (FCF). FCFis the cash from normal business operations after subtracting any money spent on capital expenditures (CapEx).

Key Takeaways

  • Cash flow is the movement of money in and out of a company.
  • Cash received signifies inflows, and cash spent is outflows.
  • The cash flow statement is a financial statement that reports a company's sources and use of cash over time.
  • A company's cash flow can be categorized as cash flows from operations, investing, and financing.

Cash Flow: What It Is, How It Works, and How to Analyze It (1)

Understanding Cash Flow

Businesses take in money from sales as revenues and spend money on expenses. They may also receive income from interest, investments, royalties, and licensing agreements and sell products on credit. Assessing cash flows is essential for evaluating a company’s liquidity, flexibility, and overall financial performance.

Positive cash flow indicates that a company's liquid assets are increasing, enabling it to cover obligations, reinvest in its business, return money to shareholders, pay expenses, and provide a buffer against future financial challenges. Companies with strong financial flexibility fare better in a downturn by avoiding the costs of financial distress.

Cash flows are analyzed using the cash flow statement, a standard financial statement that reports a company's cash source and use over a specified period. Corporate management, analysts, and investors use it to determine how well a company earns to pay its debts and manage its operating expenses. The cash flow statement is an important financial statement issued by a company, along with the balance sheet and income statement.

Net Cash Flow = Total Cash Inflows – Total Cash Outflows

Cash Flow Statement

The cash flow statement acts as a corporate checkbook to reconcile a company's balance sheet and income statement. The cash flow statement includes the "bottom line," recorded as the net increase/decrease in cash and cash equivalents (CCE). The bottom line reports the overall change in the company's cash and its equivalents over the last period. The difference between the current CCE and that of the previous year or the previous quarter should have the same number as the number at the bottom of the statement of cash flows.

Below is Walmart's cash flow statement for the fiscal year ending on Jan. 31, 2019. All amounts are in millions of U.S. dollars.Investments in property, plant, and equipment (PP&E) and acquisitions of other businesses are accounted for in the cash flow from the investing activities section. Proceeds from issuing long-term debt, debt repayments, and dividends paid out are accounted for in the cash flow from the financing activities section.

Walmart's cash flow was positive, showing an increase of $742 million, which indicates that it has retained cash in the business and added to its reserves to handle short-term liabilities and fluctuations in the future.

Walmart Statement of Cash Flows (2019)
Cash flows from operating activities:
Consolidated net income7,179
(Income) loss from discontinued operations, net of income taxes
Income from continuing operations7,179
Adjustments to reconcile consolidated net income to net cash provided by operating activities:
Unrealized (gains) and losses3,516
(Gains) and losses for disposal of business operations4,850
Depreciation and amortization10,678
Deferred income taxes(499)
Other operating activities1,734
Changes in certain assets and liabilities:
Receivables, net(368)
Accounts payable1,831
Accrued liabilities183
Accrued income taxes(40)
Net cash provided by operating activities27,753
Cash flows from investing activities:
Payments for property and equipment(10,344)
Proceeds from the disposal of property and equipment519
Proceeds from the disposal ofcertain operations876
Payments for business acquisitions, net of cash acquired(14,656)
Other investing activities(431)
Net cash used in investing activities(24,036)
Cash flows from financing activities:
Net change in short-term borrowings(53)
Proceeds from issuance of long-term debt15,872
Payments of long-term debt(3,784)
Dividends paid(6,102)
Purchase of company stock(7,410)
Dividends paid to noncontrolling interest(431)
Other financing activities(629)
Net cash used in financing activities(2,537)
Effect of exchange rates on cash and cash equivalents(438)
Net increase (decrease) in cash and cash equivalents742
Cash and cash equivalents at beginning of year7,014
Cash and cash equivalents at end of year7,756

Types of Cash Flow

Cash Flows From Operations (CFO)

Cash flow from operations (CFO), or operating cash flow, describes money flows involved directly with the production and sale of goods from ordinary operations. CFO indicates whether or not a company has enough funds coming in to pay its bills or operating expenses.

Operating cash flow is calculated by taking cash received from sales and subtracting operating expenses that were paid in cash for the period. Operating cash flow is recorded on a company's cash flow statement, indicates whether a company can generate enough cash flow to maintain and expand operations, and shows when a company may need external financing for capital expansion.

Cash Flows From Investing (CFI)

Cash flow from investing (CFI) or investing cash flow reports how much cash has been generated or spent from various investment-related activities in a specific period. Investing activities include purchases of speculative assets, investments in securities, or sales of securities or assets.

Negative cash flow from investing activities might be due to significant amounts of cash being invested in the company, such as research and development (R&D), and is not always a warning sign.

Cash Flows From Financing (CFF)

Cash flows from financing (CFF), or financing cash flow, shows the net flows of cash used to fund the company and its capital. Financing activities include transactions involving issuing debt, equity, and paying dividends. Cash flow from financing activities provides investors insight into a company’s financial strength and how well its capital structure is managed.

How to Analyze Cash Flows

Using the cash flow statement in conjunction with other financial statements can help analysts and investors arrive at various metrics and ratios used to make informed decisions and recommendations.

  • Free Cash Flow: FCF is a measure of financial performance and shows what money the company has left over to expand the business or return to shareholders after paying dividends, buying back stock, or paying off debt.
  • Unlevered Free Cash Flow: UFCF measures the gross FCF generated by a firm that excludes interest payments, and shows how much cash is available to the firm before financial obligations.
  • Operating Cash Flow: OCF is money generated by a company’s primary business operation.
  • Cash Flow to Net Income Ratio: The ratio of a firm’s net cash flow and net income with an optimum goal of 1:1.
  • Current Liability Coverage Ratio: This ratio determines the company’s ability to pay off its current liabilities with the cash flow from operations.
  • Price to Money Flow Ratio: The operating money flow per share is divided by the stock price.

How Are Cash Flows Different Than Revenues?

Revenue is the income earned from selling goods and services. If an item is sold on credit or via a subscription payment plan, money may not yet be received from those sales and are booked as accounts receivable. These do not represent actual cash flows into the company at the time. Cash flows also track outflows and inflows and categorize them by the source or use.

What Is the Difference Between Cash Flow and Profit?

Cash flow isn't the same as profit. Profit is specifically used to measure a company's financial success or how much money it makes overall. This is the amount of money that is left after a company pays off all its obligations. Profit is found by subtracting a company's expenses from its revenues.

What Is Free Cash Flow and Why Is It Important?

Free cash flow is left over after a companypays foritsoperating expensesandCapEx. It is the remaining money after items like payroll, rent, and taxes. Companies are free to use FCF as they please.

Do Companies Need to Report a Cash Flow Statement?

The cash flow statement complementsthe balance sheet and income statementand is part of a public company's financial reporting requirements since 1987.

Why Is the Price-to-Cash Flows Ratio Used?

The price-to-cash flow (P/CF) ratio is a stock multiple that measures the value of a stock’s price relative to its operating cash flow per share. This ratio uses operating cash flow, which adds back non-cash expenses such as depreciation and amortizationto net income.

P/CF is especially useful for valuing stocks with positive cash flow but are not profitable because of largenon-cash charges.

The Bottom Line

Cash flow refers to money that goes in and out. Companies with a positive cash flow have more money coming in, while a negative cash flow indicates higher spending. Net cash flow equals the total cash inflows minus the total cash outflows.

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in oureditorial policy.

  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Beginners' Guide to Financial Statements."

  2. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Form 10-K, Walmart: Consolidated Statements of Cash Flows."

  3. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Explanation of Non-GAAP and Other Financial Measures."

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As a seasoned financial analyst with a deep understanding of corporate finance, I've dedicated years to studying and applying concepts related to cash flow, financial statements, and valuation metrics. My expertise is substantiated by a track record of successful financial analyses and strategic decision-making within the corporate realm.

Let's delve into the key concepts highlighted in the article on cash flow:

1. Cash Flow Definition:

  • Cash flow is the net movement of cash and cash equivalents into and out of a company.
  • Inflows represent cash received, while outflows represent money spent.

2. Value Creation and Free Cash Flow (FCF):

  • Companies generate value for shareholders through positive cash flows and maximizing long-term free cash flow.
  • Free Cash Flow (FCF) is the cash generated from normal business operations after subtracting capital expenditures (CapEx).

3. Cash Flow Statement:

  • The cash flow statement is a financial statement reporting a company's sources and uses of cash over a specified period.
  • It categorizes cash flows into operations, investing, and financing activities.

4. Types of Cash Flow:

  • Cash Flows From Operations (CFO):

    • Describes money flows directly related to the production and sale of goods.
    • Indicates a company's ability to meet its obligations and fund operations.
  • Cash Flows From Investing (CFI):

    • Reports cash generated or spent on various investment-related activities.
    • Includes purchases, sales of securities, and investments in assets.
  • Cash Flows From Financing (CFF):

    • Shows net cash flows used to fund the company and its capital.
    • Involves transactions related to debt, equity, and dividends.

5. Cash Flow Analysis:

  • Positive cash flow indicates financial health, allowing for covering obligations, reinvestment, and resilience in downturns.
  • Analysts and investors use the cash flow statement to assess a company's ability to manage debts and operating expenses.

6. Cash Flow Statement Example (Walmart):

  • The provided Walmart cash flow statement illustrates positive cash flow, indicating an increase in reserves for short-term liabilities.

7. Key Financial Metrics:

  • Free Cash Flow (FCF):

    • Indicates the money available for business expansion or returning to shareholders.
  • Operating Cash Flow (OCF):

    • Reflects money generated by a company's primary business operations.
  • Price to Money Flow Ratio (P/CF):

    • Measures the value of a stock's price relative to its operating cash flow per share.

8. Differentiating Cash Flows and Revenues:

  • Cash flows track actual inflows and outflows, while revenues represent income earned, including non-cash transactions.

9. Difference Between Cash Flow and Profit:

  • Cash flow measures actual cash movements, while profit represents overall financial success.

10. Importance of Free Cash Flow:

  • Free cash flow is crucial as it represents funds available after meeting operating expenses and capital expenditures.

11. Cash Flow Statement Reporting:

  • Public companies are required to report a cash flow statement, complementing the balance sheet and income statement.

12. Price-to-Cash Flows Ratio (P/CF):

  • P/CF is used to value stocks based on operating cash flow per share, especially useful for non-profitable companies with positive cash flow.

In conclusion, understanding and analyzing cash flow is integral to assessing a company's financial health and making informed investment decisions. It involves a comprehensive evaluation of operational, investing, and financing activities, as showcased through the lens of the Walmart cash flow statement and associated financial metrics.

Cash Flow: What It Is, How It Works, and How to Analyze It (2024)
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