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Financial Metrics Explained
Metrics Categories, Definitions, Meaning and Usage

Business Encyclopedia, ISBN 978-1-929500-10-9. Revised 2014-092-23.

Most financial metrics are either cash flow metrics or financial statement metrics

Financial Metrics reveal characteristics of financial data that might not be apparent from a simple review of the numbers.

The word metrics refers to measurement. Business people speak of software performance metrics, customer satisfaction metrics and financial metrics, for instance. The metrics in each case describe how the subject is measured and there can be many different ways to measure each subject. Most people in business—even those who are not in finance or accounting—have heard of financial metrics such as net cash flow, return on investment, or earnings per share.

Each financial metric says something unique about a body of financial data. In that way, financial metrics are like descriptive statistics: the statistical average (arithmetic mean), for example, represents the "typical" value in a data set. Similarly, each financial metric says something unique about a set of cash flow numbers or financial statement figures. The financial metric reveals some characteristic of the whole body of data that might not be apparent from simply reviewing individual financial figures.

The payback period cash flow metric, for instance, takes a series of cash inflows and outflows and measures the time it takes for investment returns to cover investment costs. The estimated payback periods of different potential investments can be compared, to help decide which alternative is the better investment. The wise investor, however, will also want to see other metrics for the same investment choices, as well, such as net present value (NPV), return on investment (ROI), and internal rate of return (IRR).

Most financial metrics used in business belong to one of two families:

  • Cash Flow Metrics
    These include metrics such as net present value (NPV), return on Investment (ROI), and internal rate of return (IRR), used for evaluating investments and streams of cash flow events.
  • Financial Statement Metrics
    These include metrics such as the current ratio, inventory turns, or earnings per share, for evaluating a company's financial position and financial performance.

For descriptions, examples, and interpretations of these metrics, see the encyclopedia entries listed below. Or, for more in depth descriptions of these metrics and their variants, along with working spreadsheet examples, see Financial Metrics Pro.


• Cash Flow Metrics 
• Financial Statement Metrics

Cash flow metrics

Cash flow metrics describe the value of sets of cash flow events in various ways. They may apply to a single event (e.g., a cash inflow payment coming sometime in the future), or to a stream of cash flow events over time from an investment or action, such as this:

Typical investment curve for cash flow

Cash flow metrics address questions like these:

  • A company expects a certain cash inflow five years from now. What is the value today of that future inflow? The present value metric provides one answer to that question.   
  • An investor buys a bond, causing cash outflow from the investor's bank account. Years later, at maturity, the bond brings a cash inflow. How does a potential investor compare one investment possibility with another? The yield to maturity and return on investment metrics provide a basis for such comparisons.
  • A business case analyst projects a cash flow stream from an action, such as a five-year marketing campaign. The action will bring many cash inflows and outflows over the years, summarized with a net cash flow stream such as the figure above. Cash flow metrics such as net present value and internal rate of return help describe the cash flow value, for comparing to other actions.   

Cash flow metrics are generally used for ...

  • Comparing different possible courses of action or investments.
  • Justifying a chosen action in financial terms.
  • Anticipating the financial consequences of an action for budgeting or planning purposes.

Cash flow metrics explained and illustrated in this encyclopedia include:

  • Net cash flow
    The net of incoming and outgoing cash flows, usually expressed as net cash flow per period (e.g., net per year or net per month). 
  • Cumulative cash flow
    For a series of cash flow events, the cumulative value of all cash flows through the end of the current period.
  • Future value/Compound interest
    The value at some time in the future of money that will be received or paid at the future time. For instance, funds deposited in the bank today and earning interest until a future time bring a future value (initial deposit plus earned interest) greater than the initial deposit.
  • Present value (Discounted Cash Flow DCF, Net Present Value)
    The value today of money that will not be received or paid until sometime in the future; the value today (present value) is discounted below the value the funds will have when the future cash flow actually occurs.
  •  Payback period
    The amount of time required for an investment to pay for itself (the time required for cumulative inflows to balance cumulative outflows exactly). 
  • Return on investment (ROI)
    ROI in cash flow analysis usually means a ratio or percentage, comparing an investment's incremental gains to investment costs.
  • Internal rate of return (IRR) 
    The interest rate that yields a net present value of 0 for a cash flow stream (see the encyclopedia entry IRR for an explanation of how this is determined and what it means). In bond investing, the IRR for a bond is called Yield to maturity.
  • Break even point
    Usually expressed as the number of units of a product that must be sold at a given price in order for product costs to exactly equal incoming product revenues. Units sold in excess of the break even number represent net gain, or positive margin.
  • Total cost of ownership (TCO)
    Usually applied to expensive assets or other acquisitions, TCO is the estimated total life cycle cost brought by acquiring, installing/deploying/starting, operating, maintaining, and disposing of the item at the end of its economic life.
  • Cumulative average growth rate (CAGR)
    Usually applied to find average growth rate across a number of years, as an annual percentage. CAGR is most often used for figures that grow more or less exponentially, such as compound interest eranedor sales revenues.

See the encyclopedias linked above, or for more in depth coverage and working examples, see Financial Metrics Pro.

Financial statement metrics

Financial statement metrics measure the strength of a company's financial position or the company's performance over certain time periods. These metrics use figures mostly from the company's four primary financial accounting statements: 

Four financial statements

Financial statement metrics are generally used by… 

  • Investors considering buying or selling stock or bonds in a company.
  • Company management, for identifying strengths, weaknesses, and target levels for business objectives.
  • Shareholders and boards of directors, for evaluating senior management.

Financial statement metrics in this encyclopedia are described and illustrated along with financial statements that provide data to derive them.  Financial statement metrics are presented in six categories, according to the kinds of questions they address.

  • Liquidity metrics address questions like this:
    Is the company prepared too meet its short term financial obligations? Liquidity metrics in this encyclopedia include:

    Working Capital

    Current Ratio

    Quick Ratio (Acid-Test Ratio)

    Accounts payable turnover (APT)

    Cash conversion cycle (CCC)

  • Activity and efficiency metrics address questions such as this: Is the company using its resources efficiently? Activity metrics in this encyclopedia are:

    Sales Revenues per Employee

    Inventory Turns

    Days Sales in Inventory (or Average Turnover Period, or Days Inventory Outstanding, DIO)

    Accounts Receivable Turnover

    Days payable outstanding (DPO)

    Average Collection Period (or Days Sales Outstanding, DSO)

    Cash Conversion Cycle (CCC)

    Total Asset Turnover

    Fixed Asset Turnover

  • Leverage metrics are designed for approaching questions like this:  Are the company's funds supplied primarily by owners or by creditors? Leverage metrics in this encyclopedia include:

    Total Debt to Asset Ratio

    Debt to Equity Ratios

    Total Debt to Equity Ratio

    Long Term Debt to Equity Ratio

    Times Interest Earned

  • Profitability metrics are designed to answer questions such as this: Is the company profitable? Is it making good use of its assets? Profitability metrics included in this encyclopedia are:

    Profit Margin on Sales

    Operating Profit Margin

    Gross Profit Margin

    Return on total assets (ROA)

    Return on equity (ROE) / Return on owners investment /  Return on net worth) / Return on common equity

    Earnings per share (EPS)

  • Valuation metrics address questions like this: What are the company's prospects for future earnings? This encyclopedia includes these valuation metrics:

    Price to earnings ratio (P/E)

    Book value per share

    Market to book ratio

  • Growth metrics attempt to answer questions like these:  How does the company's growth over the last five years compare to similar companies? To industry averages? Growth metrics are illustrated in this encyclopedia with the Cumulative Average Growth Rate metric (CAGR).    

By Marty Schmidt. Copyright © 2004-


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