Let's first define Net Profit and Cash Flows before we proceed further to explore the importance of each of terminologies.
Net Profit (NP) comes from Profit and Loss (P&L) statement while OCF comes from Cash Flow statement.
Net Profit: Net of revenue or sales after removing all operating expenses, depreciation, interest and taxes and including any other income, and taking into account exceptional items.
Operating Cash Flows (OCF): The net cash generated from operations.
Investing Cash Flows (CFI): The net result of capital expenditures, investments, acquisitions, etc.
Financing Cash Flows (CFF): The net result of raising cash to fund the other flows or repaying debt.
Why OCF and not NI:
The OCF is a better metric of a company's financial health for two main reasons. First, cash flow is harder to manipulate than net income. Second, "cash is king" and a company that does not generate cash over the long term is heading to get wiped out. The OCF gives you the picture about the cash received in the organization. Without cash, the company may not be able to fulfill its promise to make payments to suppliers, employees and financial institutions on a sustainable basis.
Though OCF is extremely important many investors lean towards net income. The primary reason being OCF numbers are provided once in a year while the Net Profit numbers are provided at the end of every quarter. This gives an opportunity to the media and so called experts to discuss NI numbers at least four times in a year and accordingly be more worried about the growth. Also many small investors find it difficult to read these simple set of numbers in the annual reports primarily from the fear of unknown.
Accrual Accounting system v/s Cash flows
To generate Net Profit, a company may just be required to make a sale. This sale could be either cash or on credit. If it is a cash sale it gets recognized in OCF also.
However, in reality this is not the case. Most of the companies provide credit facilities. This could provide an opportunity to manipulate the net profit numbers. The company makes a credit sale and based on this immediately recognizes the sales in the P&L and accordingly net profit number. However, the cash is not received and hence the OCF is not affected.
What happens if the customer delays payment or returns the goods or this sale was a bogus sale? This results in in a buildup of receivables in balance sheet. But the real OCF has never happened. The company may continue to do so but not indefinitely. It will have to face the reality at some point of time. The receivables numbers then will turn bed debts and result in pain.
Also there is a common element that I found in companies with poor OCF v/s NI. These companies are often backed by very strong growth stories and are widely traded in the stock market with lots of hope.
I have covered two examples viz. Opto Circuits and Arshiya International. Both these companies were the darling of stock market. These companies were running with several growth stories around. Also both the companies were backed by celebrity analysts and FIIs. You may see the details of what happened with these companies when they were unable to generate OCF: http://goo.gl/rY7l0l
Ideal OCF v/s NP ratio:
It will be ideal to have a ratio close to one, more the merrier. However, there could be a year or two where OCF is down due to market conditions or circumstances. But it cannot be for an indefinite period otherwise the survival of the company will be in question. Remember NP without CFO is like a body without oxygen.
Niteen S Dharmawat