Financial Ratios

AuthorHoward Finch, Laurie Hillstrom

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Financial ratios are one of the most common tools of managerial decision making. A ratio is a comparison of one number to another—mathematically, a simple division problem. Financial ratios involve the comparison of various figures from the financial statements in order to gain information about a company's

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performance. It is the interpretation, rather than the calculation, that makes financial ratios a useful tool for business managers. Ratios may serve as indicators, clues, or red flags regarding noteworthy relationships between variables used to measure the firm's performance in terms of profitability, asset utilization, liquidity, leverage, or market valuation.


There are basically two uses of financial ratio analysis: to track individual firm performance over time, and to make comparative judgments regarding firm performance. Firm performance is evaluated using trend analysis—calculating individual ratios on a per-period basis, and tracking their values over time. This analysis can be used to spot trends that may be cause for concern, such as an increasing average collection period for outstanding receivables or a decline in the firm's liquidity status. In this role, ratios serve as red flags for troublesome issues, or as benchmarks for performance measurement.

Another common usage of ratios is to make relative performance comparisons. For example, comparing a firm's profitability to that of a major competitor or observing how the firm stacks up versus industry averages enables the user to form judgments concerning key areas such as profitability or management effectiveness. Users of financial ratios include parties both internal and external to the firm. External users include security analysts, current and potential investors, creditors, competitors, and other industry observers. Internally, managers use ratio analysis to monitor performance and pinpoint strengths and weaknesses from which specific goals, objectives, and policy initiatives may be formed.


Perhaps the type of ratios most often used and considered by those outside a firm are the profitability ratios. Profitability ratios provide measures of profit performance that serve to evaluate the periodic financial success of a firm. One of the most widely-used financial ratios is net profit margin, also known as return on sales.

Return on sales provides a measure of bottom-line profitability. For example, a net profit margin of 6 percent means that for every dollar in sales, the firm generated six cents in net income.

Two other margin measures are gross profit margin and operating margin.

Gross margin measures the direct production costs of the firm. A gross profit margin of 30 percent would indicate that for each dollar in sales, the firm spent seventy cents in direct costs to produce the good or service that the firm sold.

Operating margin goes one step further, incorporating nonproduction costs such as selling, general, and administrative expenses of the firm. Operating profit is also commonly referred to as earnings before interest and taxes, or EBIT. An operating margin of 15 percent would indicate that the firm spent an additional fifteen cents out of every dollar in sales on nonproduction expenses, such as sales commissions paid to the firm's sales force or administrative labor expenses.

Two very important measures of the firm's profitability are return on assets and return on equity.

Return on assets (ROA) measures how effectively the firm's assets are used to generate profits net of expenses. An ROA of 7 percent would mean that for each dollar in assets, the firm generated seven cents in profits. This is an extremely useful measure of comparison among firms's competitive performance, for it is the job of managers to utilize the assets of the firm to produce profits.

Return on equity (ROE) measures the net return per dollar invested in the firm by the owners, the common shareholders. An ROE of 11 percent means the firm is generating an 11-cent return per dollar of net worth.

One should note that in each of the profitability ratios mentioned above, the numerator in the ratio comes from the firm's income statement. Hence, these are measures of periodic performance, covering the specific period reported in the firm's income statement. Therefore, the proper interpretation for a profitability ratio such as an ROA of 11 percent would be that, over the specific period (such as fiscal year 2004), the firm returned eleven cents on each dollar of asset investment.

Table 1

Profitability Ratios

Gross profit margin Return on assets
Operating margin Return on equity
Net profit margin

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Asset utilization ratios provide measures of management effectiveness. These ratios serve as a guide to critical factors concerning the use of the firm's assets, inventory, and accounts receivable collections in day-to-day operations. Asset utilization ratios are especially important for internal monitoring concerning performance over multiple periods, serving as warning signals or benchmarks from which meaningful conclusions may be reached on operational issues. An example is the total asset turnover (TAT) ratio.

This ratio offers managers a measure of how well the firm is utilizing its assets in order to generate sales revenue. An increasing TAT would be an indication that the firm is using its assets more productively. For example, if the TAT for 2003 was 2.2×, and for 2004 3×, the interpretation would follow that in 2004, the firm generated $3 in sales for each dollar of assets, an additional 80 cents in sales per dollar...

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