Ever Wondered How To Read a Balance Sheet?

Updated: Jan 30

A standard company balance sheet has three parts: assets, liabilities and ownership equity. The main categories of assets are usually listed first, and normally, in order of liquidity. On the left side of a balance sheet, assets will typically be classified into current assets and non-current (long-term) assets.


Sample Balance Sheet

Current Assets

A current asset on the balance sheet is an asset which can either be converted to cash or used to pay current liabilities within 12 months. Typical current assets include cash and cash equivalents, short-term investments, accounts receivable, inventories and the portion of prepaid liabilities which will be paid within a year.


Cash and cash equivalents are the most liquid assets found within the asset portion of a company's balance sheet. Cash equivalents are assets that are readily convertible into cash, such as money market holdings, short-term government bonds or treasury bills, marketable securities and commercial papers. Cash equivalents are distinguished from other investments through their short-term existence; they mature within 3 months whereas short-term investments are 12 months or less, and long-term investments are any investments that mature in excess of 12 months.


Accounts receivable represents money owed by entities to the firm on the sale of products or services on credit. In most business entities, accounts receivable is typically executed by generating an invoice and either mailing or electronically delivering it to the customer, who, in turn, must pay it within an established time frame, called credit terms or payment terms.


Most manufacturing organizations usually divide their inventory into:

  • raw materials - materials and components scheduled for use in making a product,

  • work in process (WIP) - materials and components that have began their transformation to finished goods,

  • finished goods - goods ready for sale to customers, and

  • goods for resale - returned goods that are salable.

A deferred expense or prepayment, prepaid expense (plural often prepaids), is an asset representing cash paid out to a counterpart for goods or services to be received in a later accounting period. For example, if a service contract is paid quarterly in advance, at the end of the first month of the period two months remain as a deferred expense. In the deferred expense, the early payment is accompanied by a related, recognized expense in the subsequent accounting period, and the same amount is deducted from the prepayment.

Non-Current Assets

A non-current asset is a term used in accounting for assets and property which cannot easily be converted into cash. This can be compared with current assets such as cash or bank accounts, which are described as liquid assets. Non-current assets include property, plant and equipment (PPE), investment property (such as real estate held for investment purposes), intangible assets, long-term financial assets, investments accounted for by using the equity method, and biological assets, which are living plants or animals.

Property, plant, and equipment normally include items such as land and buildings, motor vehicles, furniture, office equipment, computers, fixtures and fittings, and plant and machinery. These often receive favorable tax treatment (depreciation allowance) over short-term assets.


Intangible assets are defined as identifiable, non-monetary assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured. They are created through time and effort, and are identifiable as a separate asset. There are two primary forms of intangibles - legal intangibles (such as trade secrets (e. g., customer lists), copyrights, patents, and trademarks) and competitive intangibles (such as knowledge activities (know-how, knowledge), collaboration activities, leverage activities, and structural activities). The intangible asset "goodwill" reflects the difference between the firm's net assets and its market value; the amount is first recorded at time of acquisition. The additional value of the firm in excess of its net assets usually reflects the company's reputation, talent pool, and other attributes that separate it from the competition. Goodwill must be tested for impairment on an annual basis and adjusted if the firm's market value has changed.


Investments accounted for by using the equity method are 20-50% stake investments in other companies. The investor keeps such equities as an asset on the balance sheet. The investor's proportional share of the associate company's net income increases the investment (and a net loss decreases the investment), and proportional payment of dividends decreases it. In the investor's income statement, the proportional share of the investee's net income or net loss is reported as a single-line item.


Limitations of the Balance Sheet

In financial accounting, a balance sheet or statement of financial position is a summary of the financial balances of a sole proprietorship, business partnership, corporation, or other business organization, such as an LLC or an LLP. Assets, liabilities and ownership equity are listed as of a specific date, such as the end of its financial year. A balance sheet is often described as a "snapshot of a company's financial condition. " Of the four basic financial statements, the balance sheet is the only statement which applies to a single point in time of a business' calendar year. There are three primary limitations to balance sheets, including the fact that they are recorded at historical cost, the use of estimates, and the omission of valuable things, such as intelligence.


Fixed assets are shown in the balance sheet at historical cost less depreciation up to date. Depreciation affects the carrying value of an asset on the balance sheet. The historical cost will equal the carrying value only if there has been no change recorded in the value of the asset since acquisition. Therefore, the balance sheet does not show true value of assets. Historical cost is criticized for its inaccuracy since it may not reflect current market valuation.



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