importance of the cash flow statement: it’s like mushrooms

why project a cash flow statement?

While I was in graduate school, I spent a year in Germany studying at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen.  Before school started I lived for a while with a German family.  Every Saturday morning we would roam the local woods in search of the mushrooms that would comprise one or two of our meals during the following week.  Since I had no clue what I was doing, my hosts would scrutinize any mushrooms I found very carefully to make sure they weren’t poisonous.

One type, the death cap–which I never stumbled across–still stands vividly in my mind.  According to my family and to public service announcements on tv, not only was this mushroom deadly, but the first symptoms of its effects only developed after the poisoning was too far advanced to be treated.

There’s an analog to this situation in the investment world.  These are cases where the financial results of past management actions narrow the scope of future possible outcomes to the point where one or two become highly probable–if not unavoidable. In these cases, management is never going to spell out the constraints it it working under.  Nevertheless, the current financial condition probably makes their future actions very highly predictable.

Projecting a cash flow statement for such a company is the way to uncover and evaluate.  (An analyst should do this for every company under coverage.  In my experience, most don’t.  In “mushroom” cases, however, the cash flow statement is crucial.)


a toy company

In the early Nineties I was following–and for a while owned shares in–a small publicly owned toy company.  It earned, say, $10 million annually.  One year it had a surprisingly successful spring-driven flying toy doll for girls.  The following year it decided to make a similar toy for boys, with a martial theme and a stronger spring.  As I recall, the firm decided to spend $40 million on materials and labor for this toy (a real roll of the dice at 4x total corporate earnings).  It got the money through trade financing and borrowing from its bank.  The risk was especially high, since all the manufacturing had to be done at one time, in preparation for the yearend holiday selling season.  On the other hand, the prior year’s toy had been a smash hit; the firm really understood the boy market and felt this one would be, as well.

Soon after the toy was on the shelves of toy stores, the company began to get reports that the combination of a strong spring and curious young boys was resulting in severe eye injuries to users.  The government mandated a recall.  The $20 million in profits the company had envisioned was up in smoke.  The inventory that had cost $40 million to make was now worth close to zero.

Do the math.  At most $10 million in earnings from other toys vs. $40 million in short-term financing needing to be repaid = no way out.

the Mets

The New York Times published a recent article on the Mets’ finances, titled “For Mets, Vast Debt and Not a Lot of Time.”  There isn’t enough publicly available information to draw a firm conclusion, but if the figures in the article are correct, the Mets don’t have much wiggle room.  The current club drive to lower the total player salary bill may be the only real option it has.  Specifically,

Sources of funds:

The Mets lost $70 million (I’m presuming that this is a pre-tax figure, but this isn’t clear) last season, with a player payroll of about $150 million.  Let’s say the actual pre-tax cash outflow was $30 million.

If we make the (optimistic) assumption that ticket sales and concession revenue in 2012 is constant with 2011, then lowering payroll to $100 million will result in a pre-tax loss of $20 million for 2012.  Cash flow should be positive, at about $20 million.

2013 cash inflow = $40 million ?

2014 cash inflow = $50 million ?

Uses of funds:

repayment of $25 million to Major League Baseball, now overdue

repayment of $40 million Bank of America bridge loan

repayment of $430 million team loan in 2014.

If, again, the NYT figures are correct and the cash inflow numbers I’ve made up for 2012-14 are anywhere close, the Mets won’t be able to make much of a dent in the 2014 principal repayment requirement.  It seems to me that dealing with the $430 million that comes due in three years is the major management issue.

What I’ve written above is just the bare bones.  The Mets are attempting to find outside investors who are willing to accept having no say in the running of the organization.  Suit by the Madoff trustee is pending.  And, of course, there’s the tangled relationship between the Mets and SNY, the Wilpon-controlled cable network to which the club has sold broadcast rights.


Eastman Kodak has been supporting its ongoing turnaround through outside financing and asset sales.   Looking at the cash flow statement for the past couple of years and projecting it forward for the next few will be highly instructive.

Current market worries about Italy’s sovereign debt also have a cash flow basis.   The issue is the current high cost of refinancing maturing debt.  Unlike the previous corporate instances, Italy’s new government has much greater scope for initiating reforms that can change market perceptions quickly.  And perceptions, rather than the amount of outstanding debt (which is typically the corporate issue), are the main concern here.  Still, projecting sources and uses of funds forward for several years will give a much clearer grasp on the issues than simply watching current yields.







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