Accounting for Entrepreneurs

Balance Sheet Interpretation Part I: Introduction

Written by Bobby Jan for Gaebler Ventures

When running or acquiring a business, it is important to be able to interpret a balance sheet. This introductory article is the first article in the Balance Sheet Interpretation series.

If you are running a business or looking to buy a business, then understanding and interpreting financial statements is essential.

This is the introductory article to the Balance Sheet Analysis series.

After reading the series, you should gain a basic understanding on how to interpret some important components of the balance sheet.

Before we dig into the balance sheet, let us review the three attributes of financial statements:

  • Tax Orientation - Businesses tend to minimize taxes by minimizing the reporting of profits (by minimizing the reporting of income and maximizing the reporting of expenditure). As a result, statements tend to be tax oriented.
  • Conservative - An important accounting convention is conservatism. This means when an accountant is unsure which value to use, they will use the most conservative. As a result, financial statements tend to be biased towards conservatism.
  • Historical Valuations - Financial statements tend to be historical in nature. This means some assets may be quoted at a historical value instead of current market value.

The balance sheet is one of the four main financial statements: balance sheet, income statement, statement of retained earnings, and statement of cash flow.

The balance sheet reports the company's assets, liabilities, and owner's equity at a given point of time. The balance sheet, as its name suggests, always balances out: assets = liability + owner's equity (ALOE).

When you look at a balance sheet, you will see a list of assets, liabilities, and their associated numbers. As an entrepreneur, you will need to be able to interpret these numbers. To get a general feeling for an All-American balance sheet, the following is a list of assets and liabilities as shown in Berkshire Hathaway's 2007 annual report:

Berkshire Hathaway Assets

  • Cash and equivalents
  • Accounts and notes receivable
  • Inventory
  • Other current assets
  • Goodwill and other intangibles
  • Fixed assets
  • Other assets

Berkshire Hathaway Liabilities

  • Notes payable
  • Other current liabilities
  • Deferred liabilities
  • Term debt and others

There are many important reasons why you should analyze the balance sheet. Here are a few examples of what you should be looking for in a balance sheet:

  • As the owner (or potential owner) of a company, you do not have priority claim against the assets of a company. You want to know if the company could meet its debt obligations and if there is any danger of bankruptcy.
  • Is the company in danger of facing a potential liquidity crisis? If the company is unable to meet current debt obligations (aka having a liquidity crisis) then you might have to sell important, illiquid assets at fire-sale prices.
  • Will the company have trouble raising new capital?
  • How operationally efficient is the business?
  • How much should I pay for these assets and liabilities?

With practice, you'll soon be able to look at a balance sheet and immediately get a sense for how a company is doing and what troubles lie ahead. Master that art and you'll have a big advantage over most entrepreneurs.

Learn More About Interpreting a Balance Sheet

To learn how to read a balance sheet and understand what a balance sheet says about how a company is doing, read the other articles in the Balance Sheet Interpretation Series:

Cheng Ming (Bobby) Jan is an Economics major at the University of Chicago who has a strong interest in entrepreneurship and investing.

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