How to Read & Understand a Balance Sheet | HBS Online (2024)

When it comes to understanding a business, there are few financial statements more important than the balance sheet. The balance sheet offers critical insight into the health of a business that can be used by:

  • Potential investors to decide whether to invest in a company
  • Business owners to craft more effective organizational strategy
  • Employees to adjust their processes to better reach shared organizational goals

Whether you’re a business owner, employee, or investor, understanding how to read and understand the information in a balance sheet is an essential financial accounting skill to have.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding a balance sheet, including what it is, the information it contains, why it’s so important, and the underlying mechanics of how it works.

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What Is a Balance Sheet?

A balance sheet is a financial document designed to communicate exactly how much a company or organization is worth—its so-called “book value.” The balance sheet achieves this by listing out and tallying up all of a company’s assets, liabilities, and owners’ equity as of a particular date, also known as the “reporting date."

Typically, a balance sheet will be prepared and distributed on a quarterly or monthly basis, depending on the frequency of reporting as determined by law or company policy.

Check out our video on the balance sheet below, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more explainer content!

How to Read & Understand a Balance Sheet | HBS Online (1)

The Purpose of the Balance Sheet

A balance sheet provides a summary of a business at a given point in time. It’s a snapshot of a company’s financial position, as broken down into assets, liabilities, and equity. Balance sheets serve two very different purposes depending on the audience reviewing them.

When a balance sheet is reviewed internally by a business leader, key stakeholder, or employee, it’s designed to give insight into whether a company is succeeding or failing. Based on this information, an internal audience can shift their policies and approach: doubling down on successes, correcting failures, and pivoting toward new opportunities.

When a balance sheet is reviewed externally by someone interested in a company, it’s designed to give insight into what resources are available to a business and how they were financed. Based on this information, potential investors can decide whether it would be wise to invest in a company. Similarly, it’s possible to leverage the information in a balance sheet to calculate important metrics, such as liquidity, profitability, and debt-to-equity ratio.

External auditors, on the other hand, might use a balance sheet to ensure a company is complying with any reporting laws it’s subject to.

It’s important to remember that a balance sheet communicates information as of a specific date. By its very nature, a balance sheet is always based upon past data. While investors and stakeholders may use a balance sheet to predict future performance, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Balance Sheet Equation

The information found in a balance sheet will most often be organized according to the following equation: Assets = Liabilities + Owners’ Equity.

How to Read & Understand a Balance Sheet | HBS Online (3)

While this equation is the most common formula for balance sheets, it isn’t the only way of organizing the information. Here are other equations you may encounter:

Owners’ Equity = Assets - Liabilities

Liabilities = Assets - Owners’ Equity

A balance sheet should always balance. Assets must always equal liabilities plus owners’ equity. Owners’ equity must always equal assets minus liabilities. Liabilities must always equal assets minus owners’ equity.

If a balance sheet doesn’t balance, it’s likely the document was prepared incorrectly. Typically, errors are due to incomplete or missing data, incorrectly entered transactions, errors in currency exchange rates or inventory levels, miscalculations of equity, or miscalculated depreciation or amortization.

Here’s a closer look at what's typically included in each of those categories of value: assets, liabilities, and owners’ equity.

1. Assets

An asset is defined as anything that is owned by a company and holds inherent, quantifiable value. A business could, if necessary, convert an asset into cash through a process known as liquidation. Assets are typically tallied as positives (+) in a balance sheet and broken down into two further categories: current assets and noncurrent assets.

Current assets typically include anything a company expects it will convert into cash within a year, such as:

  • Cash and cash equivalents
  • Prepaid expenses
  • Inventory
  • Marketable securities
  • Accounts receivable

Noncurrent assets typically include long-term investments that aren’t expected to be converted into cash in the short term, such as:

  • Land
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Brands
  • Goodwill
  • Intellectual property
  • Equipment used to produce goods or perform services

Because companies invest in assets to fulfill their mission, you must develop an intuitive understanding of what they are. Without this knowledge, it can be challenging to understand the balance sheet and other financial documents that speak to a company’s health.

Related: Financial Statement Analysis: The Basics for Non-Accountants

2. Liabilities

A liability is the opposite of an asset. While an asset is something a company owns, a liability is something it owes. Liabilities are financial and legal obligations to pay an amount of money to a debtor, which is why they’re typically tallied as negatives (-) in a balance sheet.

Just as assets are categorized as current or noncurrent, liabilities are categorized as current liabilities or noncurrent liabilities.

Current liabilities typically refer to any liability due to the debtor within one year, which may include:

  • Payroll expenses
  • Rent payments
  • Utility payments
  • Debt financing
  • Accounts payable
  • Other accrued expenses

Noncurrent liabilities typically refer to any long-term obligations or debts which will not be due within one year, which might include:

  • Leases
  • Loans
  • Bonds payable
  • Provisions for pensions
  • Deferred tax liabilities

Liabilities may also include an obligation to provide goods or services in the future.

3. Owners’ Equity

Owners’ equity, also known as shareholders' equity, typically refers to anything that belongs to the owners of a business after any liabilities are accounted for.

If you were to add up all of the resources a business owns (the assets) and subtract all of the claims from third parties (the liabilities), the residual leftover is the owners’ equity.

Owners’ equity typically includes two key elements. The first is money, which is contributed to the business in the form of an investment in exchange for some degree of ownership (typically represented by shares). The second is earnings that the company generates over time and retains.

A Balance Sheet Example

By looking at the sample balance sheet below, you can extract vital information about the health of the company being reported on.

How to Read & Understand a Balance Sheet | HBS Online (4)

For example, this balance sheet tells you:

  • The reporting period ends November 30, 2018, and compares against a similar reporting period from the year prior
  • The company’s assets total $60,173, including $37,232 in current assets and $22,941 in noncurrent assets
  • The company’s liabilities total $16,338, including $14,010 in current liabilities and $2,328 in noncurrent liabilities
  • The company retained $45,528 in earnings during the reporting period, slightly more than the same period a year prior

It's important to note that how a balance sheet is formatted differs depending on where an organization is based. The example above complies with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which companies outside the United States follow. In this balance sheet, accounts are listed from least liquid to most liquid (or how quickly they can be converted into cash).

If this balance sheet were from a US company, it would adhere to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), and the order of accounts would be reversed (most liquid to least liquid).

Related: GAAP vs. IFRS: What Are the Key Differences and Which Should You Use?

A Crucial Understanding

The information found in a company’s balance sheet is among some of the most important for a business leader, regulator, or potential investor to understand. Without this knowledge, it can be challenging to know whether a company is struggling or thriving, highlighting why learning how to read and understand a balance sheet is a crucial skill for anyone interested in business.

Do you want to take your career to the next level? Explore our online finance and accounting courses, which can teach you the key financial concepts you need to understand business performance and potential.

How to Read & Understand a Balance Sheet | HBS Online (2024)


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