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Juggling debts and dollars: My take on the current ratio

The current ratio is a trusty tool in my financial analysis arsenal.


Also known as the working capital ratio, it is a liquidity measure that gauges a company's ability to settle its short-term debts using its short-term assets.


Think of it like this: imagine a company's current assets are its readily available cash, invoices waiting to be paid (accounts receivable), and stock (inventory), all expected to be converted into cash within a year. The current ratio compares these assets to the company's current liabilities, which include bills owed to suppliers (accounts payable), wages, taxes, short-term loans, and the immediate portion of any long-term debt.


The formula of current ratio is current assets divided by its current liabilities. Learn how to use current ratio effectively.


Here's where things get interesting. A higher current ratio suggests a company is better equipped to handle its short-term obligations.


This means they have a larger buffer of current assets, easily convertible to cash within a year, compared to their current liabilities due within the same period.


But hold on, how high is "high" when it comes to this ratio? Let us break it down mathematically.


A ratio dipping below 1.0 raises a red flag, suggesting the company might lack sufficient capital to meet its short-term debts. A ratio exceeding 1.0 shows the company has the financial resources to stay afloat in the short term.


So far, so good.


But if the ratio climbs above 3.0, it could signal some inefficiencies.


The company might not be squeezing the most value out of its current assets, securing financing effectively, or managing its working capital properly. Warning signs include an overload of outdated inventory and difficulty collecting payments from customers on time.


A high current ratio could also imply the company is stockpiling too many assets, potentially missing out on opportunities to invest that money and earn a higher return.


So, what is the magic number?


The truth is, that the ideal current ratio varies depending on the industry and the company's historical performance. Generally, a ratio of 1.50 or higher is considered a sign of good liquidity. In fact, the median current ratio for publicly traded US companies in 2020 was 1.94.


For me, anything above 1.0 is a good starting point.


But here is the catch: the current ratio only offers a snapshot at a specific point in time. It does not paint the whole picture of a company's short-term liquidity. To get a more insightful view, it is wise to calculate the current ratio over several periods and track how it changes.


For instance, Company A and Company B have a current ratio of 1.0 in 2024.


There are limitations of using the current ratio. It is best to monitor the ratio over time to understand its trends.


However, by monitoring the ratio over time, we might discover that Company A's ratio is on an upward trend, indicating improvement. Conversely, Company B's ratio might be declining, possibly due to increasing debt, which could signal potential trouble down the road.


Before we wrap things up, let us address the limitations of the current ratio.


The current ratio lumps together all current assets, even those that are trickier to convert to cash quickly. Take two companies with identical current ratios of 1.0. While this might seem equal, the quality and convertibility of their assets could be vastly different.


For example, Company A might have a large amount of inventory that is difficult to sell in the short term, perhaps due to overstock or unpopular items. This could lead to a decrease in the value of their inventory.


On the other hand, Company B might have more cash readily available, the most liquid asset, and a larger amount of accounts receivable that can be collected faster than inventory.


Even though they have the same total current asset value, Company B boasts a stronger position in terms of liquidity and solvency.


The current ratio can also be misleading because it does not consider the timing of liabilities and assets. Liabilities might be due in six months, while some assets might take nine months to convert to cash.


Furthermore, investors need to consider how easily receivables can be collected, as older debts are generally harder to recover, impacting the company's true liquidity.


By understanding the current ratio's strengths and weaknesses, you can use it as a valuable tool to assess a company's financial health. Remember, it is just one piece of the puzzle, so be sure to consider other financial metrics alongside it for a more comprehensive analysis.


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