Noncash Items

A primary reason that accounting income differs from cash flow is that an income statement contains noncash items. The most important of these is depreciation. Suppose a firm purchases an asset for $5,000 and pays in cash. Obviously, the firm has a $5,000 cash outflow at the time of purchase. However, instead of deducting the $5,000 as an expense, an accountant might depreciate the asset over a five-year period.

If the depreciation is straight-line and the asset is written down to zero over that period, then $5,000/5 = $1,000 will be deducted each year as an expense.2 The important thing to recognize is that this $1,000 deduction isn't cash—it's an accounting number. The actual cash outflow occurred when the asset was purchased.

The depreciation deduction is simply another application of the matching principle in accounting. The revenues associated with an asset would generally occur over some length of time. So, the accountant seeks to match the expense of purchasing the asset with the benefits produced from owning it.

As we will see, for the financial manager, the actual timing of cash inflows and outflows is critical in coming up with a reasonable estimate of market value, so we need to learn how to separate the cash flows from the noncash accounting entries. In reality, the difference between cash flow and accounting income can be pretty dramatic. For example, media company Clear Channel Communications reported a net loss of $332 million for the first quarter of 2001. Sounds bad, but Clear Channel also reported a positive cash flow of $324 million! The reason the difference is so large is that Clear Channel has particularly big noncash deductions related to, among other things, the acquisition of radio stations.

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