Interpreting company’s 10-K report can reap valuable information

March 9, 2014 

Glossy annual reports are being supplanted by the Form 10-K, the annual filing required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Don’t be put off by the form’s intimidating appearance. We’ve highlighted some key sections — and what to focus on in each.

Business. The first part of the 10-K provides a thorough look at what the firm does or makes, its divisions, and where in the world its products are made and sold. It also gives info on key customers and competitors and where the company stands in its industry.

• Risk factors. Listed in order of importance, these are the factors that might adversely affect the company’s business. Much of this section, found just after the “Business” description, may elicit a big duh, such as P&G’s disclosure that “our businesses face cost fluctuations and pressures that could affect our business results.” But read carefully and you might ferret out less-obvious risks, such as a disproportionate share of sales coming from a single product or customer.

Management’s discussion and analysis. In Part II of the 10-K, the company reports and analyzes its performance over the past year compared with the previous year’s results.

Income statement. This is a basic report of sales, expenses and profits. Ideally, you want to see a trend of rising sales and earnings. A 10-K typically shows three years of results, as well as a five-year summary in the section called “Selected Financial Data.” Focus on the trend in net earnings rather than earnings per share, in part because share buybacks, which cut the number of outstanding shares, can skew earnings per share and thus camouflage a drop in overall profits.

Balance sheet. This is a snapshot of the company’s assets (such as cash and inventory) and its liabilities (such as outstanding debt). Zero in on how much long-term debt the firm carries and whether retained profits, the earnings a company reinvests in its business, have grown in each of the past three years.

Notes to financial statements. To some people, the 10-K notes matter as much as the statements. That’s because Note 1 describes the accounting methods used to prepare the financial statements. If a company has made a change to its methodology from the previous year, that renders a comparison of the current year’s financial statements with the previous year’s useless.

• Auditor’s report. Look for this key sentence: “In our opinion, the financial statements present fairly … the financial position of the company.” That means the company has honestly described its finances over the past year to the best knowledge of the accounting firm that is auditing the 10-K.

Nellie S. Huang is a senior associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.

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