Accounting Earnings versus Cash Flows

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Accounting Earnings versus Cash Flows

Why Are Accounting Earnings Different from Cash Flows?

Accountants have invested substantial time and resources in coming up with ways of measuring the income made by a project. In doing so, they subscribe to some generally accepted accounting principles. Generally accepted accounting principles require the recognition of revenues when the service for which the firm is getting paid has been performed in full or substantially and has received in return either cash or a receivable that is both observable and measurable. For expenses that are directly linked to the production of revenues (like labor and materials), expenses are recognized in the same period in which revenues are recognized. Any expenses that are not directly linked to the production of revenues are recognized in the period in which the firm consumes the services. Although the objective of distributing revenues and expenses fairly across time is worthy, the process of accrual accounting creates an accounting earnings number that can be very different from the cash flow generated by a project in any period. There are three significant factors that account for this difference.

  1. Operating versus Capital Expenditure

Accountants draw a distinction between expenditures that yield benefits only in the immediate period or periods (such as labor and material for a manufacturing firm) and those that yield benefits over multiple periods (such as land, buildings, and long-lived plant). The former are called operating expenses and are subtracted from revenues in computing the accounting income, whereas the latter are capital expenditures and are not subtracted from revenues in the period that they are made. Instead, the expenditure is spread over multiple periods and deducted as an expense in each period; these expenses are called depreciation (if the asset is a tangible asset like a building) or amortization (if the asset is an intangible asset, such as a patent or a trademark).

Although the capital expenditures made at the beginning of a project are often the largest part of investment, many projects require capital expenditures during their lifetime. These capital expenditures will reduce the cash available in each of these periods.

  1. Noncash Charges

The distinction that accountants draw between operating and capital expenses leads to a number of accounting expenses, such as depreciation and amortization, which are not cash expenses. These noncash expenses, though depressing accounting income, do not reduce cash flows. In fact, they can have a significant positive impact on cash flows if they reduce the tax paid by the firm since some noncash charges reduce taxable income and the taxes paid by a business. The most important of such charges is depreciation, which, although reducing taxable and net income, does not cause a cash outflow. In effect, depreciation and amortization are added back to net income to arrive at the cash flows on a project.

For projects that generate large depreciation charges, a significant portion of the cash flows can be attributed to the tax benefits of depreciation, which can be written as follows:

Tax benefit of depreciation = Depreciation ∗ Marginal tax rate

Although depreciation is similar to other tax-deductible expenses in terms of the tax benefit it generates, its impact is more positive because it does not generate a concurrent cash outflow.

Amortization is also a noncash charge, but the tax effects of amortization can vary depending on the nature of the amortization. Some amortization charges, such as the amortization of the price paid for a patent or a trademark, are tax-deductible and reduce both accounting income and taxes. Thus they provide tax benefits similar to depreciation. Other amortization, such as the amortization of the premium paid on an acquisition (called goodwill), reduces accounting income but not taxable income. This amortization does not provide a tax benefit.

Although there are a number of different depreciation methods used by firms, they can be classified broadly into two groups. The first is straight-line depreciation, whereby equal amounts of depreciation are claimed each period for the life of the project. The second group includes accelerated depreciation methods, such as double-declining balance depreciation, which result in more depreciation early in the project life and less in the later years.

  1. Accrual versus Cash Revenues and Expenses

The accrual system of accounting leads to revenues being recognized when the sale is made, rather than when the customer pays for the good or service. Consequently, accrual revenues may be very different from cash revenues for three reasons. First, some customers, who bought their goods and services in prior periods, may pay in this period; second, some customers who buy their goods and services in this period (and are therefore shown as part of revenues in this period) may defer payment until the future. Finally, some customers who buy goods and services may never pay (bad debts). In some cases, customers may even pay in advance for products or services that will not be delivered until future periods.

A similar argument can be made on the expense side. Accrual expenses, relating to payments to third parties, will be different from cash expenses, because of payments made for material and services acquired in prior periods and because some materials and services acquired in current periods will not be paid for until future periods. Accrual taxes will be different from cash taxes for exactly the same reasons.

When material is used to produce a product or deliver a service, there is an added consideration. Some of the material used may have been acquired in previous periods and was brought in as inventory into this period, and some of the material that is acquired in this period may be taken into the next period as inventory.

Accountants define working capital as the difference between current assets (such as inventory and accounts receivable) and current liabilities (such as accounts payable and taxes payable). We will use a slight variant, and define non-cash working capital as the difference between noncash current assets and non-debt current liabilities; debt is not considered part of working capital because it is viewed as a source of capital. The reason we leave cash out of the working capital computation is different. We view cash, for the most part, to be a non-wasting asset, insofar as firms earn a fair rate of return on the cash. Put another way, cash that is invested in commercial paper or treasury bills is no longer a wasting asset and should not be considered part of working capital, even if it is viewed as an integral part of operations. Differences between accrual earnings and cash earnings, in the absence of noncash charges, can be captured by changes in the noncash working capital. A decrease in noncash working capital will increase cash flows, whereas an increase will decrease cash flows.



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