From my column in today’s Keys Weekly.
Q. How should I start learning about a company I might invest in?
A. Investors are fortunate that the SEC requires public companies to publish comprehensive financial information about themselves. Unfortunately, much of that information often looks like corporate propaganda. So while I’d suggest the first place you start learning about a company is by reading its annual report, it’s important to clarify the version I’m referring to.
To many investors, a company’s annual report is a color brochure full of pictures and platitudes that really don’t tell you anything at all. My advice? Throw that one out. Go find the company’s actual filings with the SEC instead.
All public company filings are available for free on the SEC’s “EDGAR” website. Go to http://www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml then click on “Company Name.” Enter a company name, and then look for “Form 10-K.”
The 10-K is similar to the glossy annual report, only it goes into much further detail. It comes without the pictures and platitudes. It looks boring and staid because, well, it’s a government document. When it comes to investing, that’s a good thing.
A 10-K should be an investor’s first source of information about a company. It contains a detailed, objective description of almost everything you would want to know about a business, including product lines, divisions, technologies, patents, customer base, and more. You’ll find information about the markets the company operates in, any legal proceedings it’s involved in, and even management’s own analysis of past results and future plans. Companies write them, lawyers review them, and the accountants bless them.
Form 10-Ks also include a company’s financial reports – in greater detail, over a longer time period, and with more complete notes than in the glossy version. You’ll find a balance sheet, which captures a company’s financial position at a point in time; an income statement, which shows the company’s performance over a range of time; and a statement of cash flows, showing company activity and performance in cash terms.
We’ll get to each statement in my next columns. To really know a company, you’ve got to look at all three.