Don't assume your profitable company has strong cash flow

Most of us are taught from a young age never to assume anything. Why? Well, because when you assume, you make an … you probably know how the rest of the expression goes.

A dangerous assumption that many business owners make is that, if their companies are profitable, their cash flow must also be strong. But this isn’t always the case. Taking a closer look at the accounting involved can provide an explanation.

Investing in the business

What are profits, really? In accounting terms, they’re closely related to taxable income. Reported at the bottom of your company’s income statement, profits are essentially the result of revenue less the cost of goods sold and other operating expenses incurred in the accounting period.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require companies to “match” costs and expenses to the period in which revenue is recognized. Under accrual-basis accounting, it doesn’t necessarily matter when you receive payments from customers or when you pay expenses.

For example, inventory sitting in a warehouse or retail store can’t be deducted — even though it may have been long paid for (or financed). The expense hits your income statement only when an item is sold or used. Your inventory account contains many cash outflows that are waiting to be expensed.

Other working capital accounts — such as accounts receivable, accrued expenses and trade payables — also represent a difference between the timing of cash flows. As your business grows and strives to increase future sales, you invest more in working capital, which temporarily depletes cash.

However, the reverse also may be true. That is, a mature business may be a “cash cow” that generates ample dollars, despite reporting lackluster profits.