Free Cash Flow & Working Capital Management
Cash flow is the net amount of cash and cash-equivalents moving into and out of a business. Positive cash flow indicates that a company’s liquid assets are increasing, enabling it to settle debts, reinvest in its business, return money to shareholders, pay expenses and provide a buffer against future financial challenges. Negative cash flow indicates that a company’s liquid assets are decreasing. Net cash flow is distinguished from net income, which includes accounts receivable and other items for which payment has not actually been received. Cash flow is used to assess the quality of a company’s income, that is, how liquid it is, which can indicate whether the company is positioned to remain solvent.
The accrual accounting method allows companies to count their chickens before they hatch, so to speak, by considering credit as part of a company’s income. “Accounts receivable” and “settlement due from customers” can appear as line items in the assets portion of a company’s balance sheet, but these items do not represent completed transactions, for which payment has been received. They do not, therefore, count as cash. (Note that the credit vs. cash distinction is not the same as it is in everyday terminology; proceeds from credit card transactions are considered cash once they are transferred.)
The opposite can also be true. A company may be receiving massive inflows of cash, but only because it is selling off its long-term assets. A company that is selling itself for parts may be building up liquidity, but it is limiting its potential for growth in the long term, and perhaps setting itself up to fail. In the same vein, a company may be taking in cash by issuing bonds and taking on unsustainable levels of debt. For these reasons it is necessary to view a company’s cash flow statement, balance sheet and income statement together as a unit.