Balance Sheet((A)ssets, (L)iabilities, (O)wner’s Equity)

by Heydarov

Introduction to Balance Sheet

The accounting balance sheet is one of the major financial statements used by accountants and business owners. (The other major financial statements are the income statementstatement of cash flows, andstatement of stockholders’ equity) The balance sheet is also referred to as the statement of financial position.

The balance sheet presents a company’s financial position at the end of a specified date. Some describe the balance sheet as a “snapshot” of the company’s financial position at a point (a moment or an instant) in time. For example, the amounts reported on a balance sheet dated December 31, 2011 reflect that instant when all the transactions through December 31 have been recorded.

Because the balance sheet informs the reader of a company’s financial position as of one moment in time, it allows someone—like a creditor—to see what a company owns as well as what it owes to other parties as of the date indicated in the heading. This is valuable information to the banker who wants to determine whether or not a company qualifies for additional credit or loans. Others who would be interested in the balance sheet include current investors, potential investors, company management, suppliers, some customers, competitors, government agencies, and labor unions.

In Part 1 we will explain the components of the balance sheet and in Part 2 we will present a sample balance sheet. If you are interested in balance sheet analysis, that is included in the Explanation of Financial Ratios.

We will begin our explanation of the accounting balance sheet with its major components, elements, or major categories:

  • Assets
  • Liabilities
  • Owner’s (Stockholders’) Equity


Assets are things that the company owns. They are the resources of the company that have been acquired through transactions, and have future economic value that can be measured and expressed in dollars. Assets also include costs paid in advance that have not yet expired, such as prepaid advertising, prepaid insurance, prepaid legal fees, and prepaid rent. (For a discussion of prepaid expenses go to Explanation of Adjusting Entries.)

Examples of asset accounts that are reported on a company’s balance sheet include:

Usually these asset accounts will have debit balances.

Contra assets are asset accounts with credit balances. (A credit balance in an asset account is contrary—or contra—to an asset account’s usual debit balance.) Examples of contra asset accounts include:

Classifications Of Assets On The Balance Sheet
Accountants usually prepare classified balance sheets. “Classified” means that the balance sheet accounts are presented in distinct groupings, categories, or classifications. The asset classifications and their order of appearance on the balance sheet are:

An outline of a balance sheet using the balance sheet classifications is shown here:


Example Company
Balance Sheet
December 31, 2011

Current Assets     Current Liabilities
Investments     Long-term liabilities
Property, Plant, and Equipment       Total Liabilities
Intangible Assets          
Other Assets   Owner’s Equity
Total Assets   Total Liabilities & Owner’s Equity


To see how various asset accounts are placed within these classifications, view the sample balance sheet in Part 4.

Effect of Cost Principle and Monetary Unit Assumption
The amounts reported in the asset accounts and on the balance sheet reflect actual costs recorded at the time of a transaction. For example, let’s say a company acquires 40 acres of land in the year 1950 at a cost of $20,000. Then, in 1990, it pays $400,000 for an adjacent 40-acre parcel. The company’s Land account will show a balance of $420,000 ($20,000 for the first parcel plus $400,000 for the second parcel.). This account balance of $420,000 will appear on today’s balance sheet even though these parcels of land have appreciated to a current market value of $3,000,000.

There are two guidelines that oblige the accountant to report $420,000 on the balance sheet rather than the current market value of $3,000,000: (1) the cost principle directs the accountant to report the company’s assets at their original historical cost, and (2) the monetary unit assumption directs the accountant to presume the U.S. dollar is stable over time—it is not affected by inflation or deflation. In effect, the accountant is assuming that a 1950 dollar, a 1990 dollar, and a 2012 dollar all have the same purchasing power.

The cost principle and monetary unit assumption may also mean that some very valuable resources will not be reported on the balance sheet. A company’s team of brilliant scientists will not be listed as an asset on the company’s balance sheet, because (a) the company did not purchase the team in a transaction (cost principle) and (b) it’s impossible for accountants to know how to put a dollar value on the team (monetary unit assumption).

Coca-Cola’s logo, Nike’s logo, and the trade names for most consumer products companies are likely to be their most valuable assets. If those names and logos were developed internally, it is reasonable that they will not appear on the company balance sheet. If, however, a company should purchase a product name and logo from another company, that cost will appear as an asset on the balance sheet of the acquiring company.

Remember, accounting principles and guidelines place some limitations on what is reported as an asset on the company’s balance sheet.

Effect of Conservatism
While the cost principle and monetary unit assumption generally prevent assets from being reported on the balance sheet at an amount greater than cost, conservatism will result in some assets being reported atless than cost. For example, assume the cost of a company’s inventory was $30,000, but now the current cost of the same items in inventory has dropped to $27,000. The conservatism guideline instructs the company to report Inventory on its balance sheet at $27,000. The $3,000 difference is reported immediately as a loss on the company’s income statement.

Effect of Matching Principle
The matching principle will also cause certain assets to be reported on the accounting balance sheet at lessthan cost. For example, if a company has Accounts Receivable of $50,000 but anticipates that it will collect only $48,500 due to some customers’ financial problems, the company will report a credit balance of $1,500 in the contra asset account Allowance for Doubtful Accounts. The combination of the asset Accounts Receivable with a debit balance of $50,000 and the contra asset Allowance for Doubtful Accounts with acredit balance will mean that the balance sheet will report the net amount of $48,500. The income statement will report the $1,500 adjustment as Bad Debts Expense.

The matching principle also requires that the cost of buildings and equipment be depreciated over their useful lives. This means that over time the cost of these assets will be moved from the balance sheet to Depreciation Expense on the income statement. As time goes on, the amounts reported on the balance sheet for these long-term assets will be reduced. (For a further discussion on depreciation, go toExplanation of Depreciation.)




Liabilities are obligations of the company; they are amounts owed to creditors for a past transaction and they usually have the word “payable” in their account title. Along with owner’s equity, liabilities can be thought of as a source of the company’s assets. They can also be thought of as a claim against a company’s assets. For example, a company’s balance sheet reports assets of $100,000 and Accounts Payable of $40,000 and owner’s equity of $60,000. The source of the company’s assets are creditors/suppliers for $40,000 and the owners for $60,000. The creditors/suppliers have a claim against the company’s assets and the owner can claim what remains after the Accounts Payable have been paid.

Liabilities also include amounts received in advance for future services. Since the amount received (recorded as the asset Cash) has not yet been earned, the company defers the reporting of revenues and instead reports a liability such as Unearned Revenues or Customer Deposits. (For a further discussion on deferred revenues/prepayments see the Explanation of Adjusting Entries.)

Examples of liability accounts reported on a company’s balance sheet include:

These liability accounts will normally have credit balances.

Contra liabilities are liability accounts with debit balances. (A debit balance in a liability account is contrary—or contra—to a liability account’s usual credit balance.) Examples of contra liability accounts include:

Classifications Of Liabilities On The Balance Sheet
Liability and contra liability accounts are usually classified (put into distinct groupings, categories, or classifications) on the balance sheet. The liability classifications and their order of appearance on the balance sheet are:

To see how various liability accounts are placed within these classifications, click here to view the sample balance sheet in Part 4.

A company’s commitments (such as signing a contract to obtain future services or to purchase goods) may be legally binding, but they are not considered a liability on the balance sheet until some services or goods have been received. Commitments (if significant in amount) should be disclosed in the notes to the balance sheet.

Form vs. Substance
The leasing of a certain asset may—on the surface—appear to be a rental of the asset, but in substance it may involve a binding agreement to purchase the asset and to finance it through monthly payments. Accountants must look past the form and focus on the substance of the transaction. If, in substance, a lease is an agreement to purchase an asset and to create a note payable, the accounting rules require that the asset and the liability be reported in the accounts and on the balance sheet.

Contingent Liabilities
Three examples of contingent liabilities include warranty of a company’s products, the guarantee of another party’s loan, and lawsuits filed against a company. Contingent liabilities are potential liabilities. Because they are dependent upon some future event occurring or not occurring, they may or may not become actual liabilities.

To illustrate this, let’s assume that a company is sued for $100,000 by a former employee who claims he was wrongfully terminated. Does the company have a liability of $100,000? It depends. If the company was justified in the termination of the employee and has documentation and witnesses to support its action, this might be considered a frivolous lawsuit and there may be no liability. On the other hand, if the company wasnot justified in the termination and it is clear that the company acted improperly, the company will likely have an income statement loss and a balance sheet liability.

The accounting rules for these cont
ingencies are as follows: If the contingent loss is probable and theamount of the loss can be estimated, the company needs to record a liability on its balance sheet and a loss on its income statement. If the contingent loss is remote, no liability or loss is recorded and there is no need to include this in the notes to the financial statements. If the contingent loss lies somewhere in between, it should be disclosed in the notes to the financial statements.

Current vs. Long-term Liabilities
If a company has a loan payable that requires it to make monthly payments for several years, only theprincipal due in the next twelve months should be reported on the balance sheet as a current liability. The remaining principal amount should be reported as a long-term liability. The interest on the loan that pertains to the future is not recorded on the balance sheet; only unpaid interest up to the date of the balance sheet is reported as a liability.

Notes to the Financial Statements
As the above discussion indicates, the notes to the financial statements can reveal important information that should not be overlooked when reading a company’s balance sheet.



Owner’s (Stockholders’) Equity

Owner’s Equity—along with liabilities—can be thought of as a source of the company’s assets. Owner’s equity is sometimes referred to as the book value of the company, because owner’s equity is equal to the reported asset amounts minus the reported liability amounts.

Owner’s equity may also be referred to as the residual of assets minus liabilities. These references make sense if you think of the basic accounting equation:


Assets   =   Liabilities   +   Owner’s Equity



and just rearrange the terms:



Owner’s Equity   =   Assets   –   Liabilities


“Owner’s Equity” are the words used on the balance sheet when the company is a sole proprietorship. If the company is a corporation, the words Stockholders’ Equity are used instead of Owner’s Equity. An example of an owner’s equity account is Mary Smith, Capital (where Mary Smith is the owner of the sole proprietorship). Examples of stockholders’ equity accounts include:

Both owner’s equity and stockholders’ equity accounts will normally have credit balances.

Contra owner’s equity accounts are a category of owner equity accounts with debit balances. (A debit balance in an owner’s equity account is contrary—or contra—to an owner’s equity account’s usual credit balance.) An example of a contra owner’s equity account is Mary Smith, Drawing (where Mary Smith is the owner of the sole proprietorship). An example of a contra stockholders’ equity account is Treasury Stock.

Classifications of Owner’s Equity On The Balance Sheet
Owner’s equity is generally represented on the balance sheet with two or three accounts (e.g., Mary Smith, Capital; Mary Smith, Drawing; and perhaps Current Year’s Net Income). See the sample balance sheet in Part 4.

The stockholders’ equity section of a corporation’s balance sheet is:

The stockholders’ equity section of a corporation’s balance sheet is:


Paid-in Capital
Preferred Stock
Common Stock
Paid-in Capital in Excess of Par Value – Preferred Stock
Paid-in Capital in Excess of Par Value – Common Stock
Paid-in Capital from Treasury Stock
Retained Earnings
Less: Treasury Stock


Owner’s Equity vs. Company’s Market Value
Since the asset amounts report the cost of the assets at the time of the transaction—or less—they do not reflect current fair market values. (For example, computers which had a cost of $100,000 two years ago may now have a book value of $60,000. However, the current value of the computers might be just $35,000. An office building purchased by the company 15 years ago at a cost of $400,000 may now have a book value of $200,000. However, the current value of the building might be $900,000.) Since the assets are not reported on the balance sheet at their current fair market value, owner’s equity appearing on the balance sheet is notan indication of the fair market value of the company.

Owner’s Equity and Temporary Accounts
Revenues, gains, expenses, and losses are income statement accounts. Revenues and gains cause owner’s equity to increase. Expenses and losses cause owner’s equity to decrease. If a company performs a service and increases its assets, owner’s equity will increase when the Service Revenues account is closed to owner’s equity at the end of the accounting year.



Sample Balance Sheet

Most accounting balance sheets classify a company’s assets and liabilities into distinctive groupings such as Current Assets; Property, Plant, and Equipment; Current Liabilities; etc. These classifications make the balance sheet more useful. The following balance sheet example is a classified balance sheet.

Sample Balance Sheet:


Example Company
Balance Sheet
December 31, 2011

Current Assets Current Liabilities
Cash $   2,100  Notes Payable $   5,000 
Petty Cash 100  Accounts Payable 35,900 
Temporary Investments 10,000  Wages Payable 8,500 
Accounts Receivable – net 40,500  Interest Payable 2,900 
Inventory 31,000  Taxes Payable 6,100 
Supplies 3,800  Warranty Liability 1,100 
Prepaid Insurance      1,500  Unearned Revenues      1,500 
Total Current Assets    89,000  Total Current Liabilities    61,000 
Investments    36,000  Long-term Liabilities
Notes Payable 20,000 
Property, Plant & Equipment Bonds Payable   400,000 
Land 5,500  Total Long-term Liabilities   420,000 
Land Improvements  6,500 
Buildings 180,000 
Equipment 201,000  Total Liabilities   481,000 
Less: Accum Depreciation    (56,000)
Prop, Plant & Equip – net   337,000 
Goodwill 105,000  Common Stock 110,000 
Trade Names   200,000  Retained Earnings 229,000 
Total Intangible Assets   305,000  Less: Treasury Stock    (50,000)
Total Stockholders’ Equity   289,000 
Other Assets      3,000 
Total Assets $770,000  Total Liab. & Stockholders’ Equity $770,000 

 The notes to the sample balance sheet have been omitted.


Notes To Financial Statements

The notes (or footnotes) to the balance sheet and to the other financial statements are considered to be part of the financial statements. The notes inform the readers about such things as significant accounting policies, commitments made by the company, and potential liabilities and potential losses. The notes contain information that is critical to properly understanding and analyzing a company’s financial statements.

It is common for the notes to the financial statements to be 10-20 pages in length. Go to the website for a company whose stock is publicly traded and locate its annual report. Review the notes near the end of the annual report.

Financial Ratios

A number of important financial ratios and statistics are generated by using amounts that are taken from the balance sheet. For an illustration of some of these computations see our Explanation of Financial Ratios.