As an investor, you should be digging in to a company’s financial statements.
However, you can’t look at these financials in isolation – it’s important to compare a company’s results to other companies in the selected industry, companies outside of the industry, and against other years to determine whether or not that company might actually be an attractive investment.
This causes difficulties, since it’s hard to compare companies of different sizes. For example, if Company A has $3,000,000 of debt outstanding and Company B has $30,000,000 of debt outstanding, is Company A less risky than Company B? We have no way of knowing, because we don’t know the cash positions of Companies A and B, how profitable Companies A and B are, etc.
Fortunately, there are two forms of analysis that we can perform that will help us look at income statements and balance sheets of different sizes, so that we can compare apples-to-apples – they are: horizontal analysis and vertical analysis.
Both are very easy to understand. Let’s start with horizontal analysis.
What is Horizontal Analysis?
Horizontal analysis, also called time series analysis, focuses on trends and changes in numbers over time. Horizontal allows you to detect growth patterns, cyclicality, etc. and to compare these factors among different companies.
As an example, let’s take a look at some income statement items for Apple and Google.
It’s almost impossible to tell which is growing faster by just looking at the numbers. So we have to do some calculations. We can perform horizontal analysis on the income statement by simply taking the percentage change for each line item year-over-year.
By using horizontal analysis, we can now clearly see that Google’s revenue, gross profit, and EBITDA grew faster than Apple’s in every year except for 2015. We can even take this one step further by calculating the compound annual growth rate for each line item from 2012 to 2016 (you can do this in Excel by using the function: =rate(nper, pmt, pv, fv)) – this tells us the average rate the companies grew in each year.
Our horizontal analysis (time series analysis) is now officially complete.
What is Vertical Analysis?
Vertical analysis, also called common-size analysis, focuses on the relative size of different line items so that you can easily compare the income statements and balance sheets of different sized companies.
Let’s go back to our income statement items for Apple and Google. Through our horizontal analysis, we know that Google has been growing at a faster and more sustained rate than Apple… but is it a relatively more profitable company? Do both companies profits seem to be sustainable?
To perform vertical analysis (common-size analysis), we take each line item and calculate it as a percentage of revenue so that we can come up with “common size” results for both companies.
Here are just the numbers once again. I’ve added a line for research & development costs as well.
Now, let’s divide each line item by revenue.
So what does this tell us?
For starters, in 2016, Apple generated $0.39 for every $1 dollar in sales it made. Google did much better, generated $0.61 for every $1 in sales it made. However, Google’s other costs (such as sales, marketing, general & administrative, and R&D) are much higher, since Google’s EBITDA margin was 33.7%, compared to Apple’s 34.0%.
We can also look at trends within this vertical analysis. For example, Apple’s gross profit has declined from 43.9% in 2012 to 39.1%, while its R&D expenses as a percentage of revenue have increased from 2.2% to 4.7% over the same time period. This could suggest that Apple is facing tough competitive pressures. Why?
- Trends in gross margin generally reveal how much pricing power a company has. Because Apple’s gross margin is declining, this probably means that (a) Apple is dropping the price of its products to match lower cost competitors, (b) Apple’s costs to produce its products are increasing and Apple is unable to increase prices to offset this, or (c) a combination of both.
- This increase in R&D suggests that Apple is doubling down its efforts to create new, innovative products to offset its competition.
Horizontal and Vertical Analysis of the Balance Sheet
Just like we performed horizontal and vertical analysis on the income statement, we can also run these calculations on the balance sheet (when performing vertical analysis of the balance sheet, line items are usually taken as a percentage of total assets). The process to calculate these ratios is similar to the examples we went through above and are fairly straight forward.
However, I’ve found that horizontal and vertical analysis of the balance sheet is much less helpful than on the income statement (ratios and YoY growth rates are basically requirements when analyzing any income statement) and can often be distorted by accounting policies (for example, is a debt-to-equity ratio really useful if the equity number used is simply a result of various accounting choices made over the years?).
Rather than calculate a “pure ratio” of the balance sheet, we can instead calculate “mixed ratios” – such as an interest coverage ratio (operating income / interest expense), leverage ratio (debt / EBITDA), or even efficiency ratios like days sales outstanding (DSO) and days payable outstanding (DPO).
The Value Investing 101 Series
For more great how to articles in our Value Investing 101 series, be sure to check out: