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What Is a Balance Sheet?

what is balance sheet

By Joshua Kennon. Investing for Beginners Expert

Thanks to his straight-forward approach and ability to simplify complex topics, Joshua Kennon's series of lessons on financial statement analysis have been used by managers, investors, colleges and universities throughout the world. "If an investment idea takes more than a few sentences, or cannot be explained to a reasonably intelligent fourth grader, you've moved into speculation," Joshua insists. "Whether you're dealing with a public company such as McDonald's, or a private company such as Chanel, these are the types of firms that are easy to understand. You know where the sales originate, what the costs are, and how profits are generated. These are the types of enterprises that aren't going to cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, breaking into a cold sweat because of the sub-prime crisis or esoteric securities trading in illiquid markets. That's a huge advantage to growing your wealth. Focus on what you know, pay a fair price, and invest for the long-term.

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Then, at the bottom of the sheet your write down all of your debt (the mortgage, car payments. and your student loan ). You subtract everything you owe by all the stuff you have and come up with your net worth .

Balance Sheets Required by the Securities and Exchange Commission

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That is what this lesson aims to teach you.

What makes a corporate, limited liability company. or limited partnership balance sheet different from the ordinary household balance sheet is that there are a lot of complex items on the books of an operating enterprise. Companies have to deal with all sorts of difficult questions that most people do not; how to depreciate and cost out a jumbo jet, how to account for the construction expenses of a power plant, dealing with lease obligations for retail space in a busy shopping mall, valuing large inventory stockpiles that might have gained or lost value since acquired, establishing reserves for potential future losses on bank loans made to borrowers, and translating multiple currency assets and liabilities back to a reporting currency are just a few examples.

It might seem overwhelming, but when

you break it down into the individual parts, you realize that there is nothing particularly difficult about any of it. The entire purpose of the balance sheet is to answer three questions:

  • What do we have? (Assets)?
  • What do we owe? (Liabilities)?
  • What is left over for the owners? (Book value or net equity )?
All of these fancy words, advanced terms, and accounting rules exist to give you, the investor, a good idea of how to estimate those three things. If you make yourself remember that is the objective, you shouldn't get overwhelmed as you wade into the waters of balance sheet analysis.

Note: Unlike other financial statements, the balance sheet cannot cover a range of dates. In other words, it may be good "as of December 31, 2009", but can't cover from December 1 - December 31. This is because a balance sheet lists items such as cash on hand and inventory, which change daily. You'll find that the way to deal with this when calculating many ratios, which I'll explain later, is to take the "average weighted" figures of a balance sheet. For example, if you wanted to know the average inventory value for the year, you would take the inventory value at the end of last year, add it to the ending inventory value this year, then divide by two. It's a quick trick that helps you avoid distortions by ending period figures that may or may not reflect what was going on for most of the year. One illustration: If a manufacturing business paid off all of its debt, and showed $0 in liabilities on the balance sheet, yet you saw a line for interest expense on the income statement, you might be confused. By weighting the average debt outstanding from the balance sheet for the same period, you'd get a better idea of what was going on and why there were interest costs.

This page is part of Investing Lesson 3 - Understanding the Balance Sheet. To go back to the beginning, see the Table of Contents . If you have already read this lesson, you can skip directly to the Balance Sheet Quiz .

Category: Forex

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