How to Read Company Accounts and Company Registers

If you can master some simple skills in reporting using company accounts it’s a good way to make your journalism stand out.


Company accounts can be excellent sources for journalists — whether as leads for news stories, or resources in more original and investigative reporting — but they are also used much less than they should be.

In this post we will introduce where to find company reports, explore the different sections you can expect to find in them, and the types of stories you can write as a result.

What types of stories company accounts can help with

Company accounts might give you news stories about what is happening in a company, but they can also be useful for providing background information on a story you’re working on, or helping you identify the person or place to focus your efforts on in a story.

In order to access a company’s accounts you will normally have to look on a company register: this is the place where the company has registered its details. It might be in your country — but it might also be in a completely different country. Some countries have very limited registers, but sites like OpenCorporates are especially useful because they allow you to search for a company across a number of different registers: the site covers over 140 different registers, from Abu Dhabi to the US state of Wyoming. 

What information can you get from a company register?

The amount of information you can get about a company will vary enormously depending on the size of the company and the jurisdiction it is registered in. Broadly speaking, the larger the company, the more information it will have to provide — especially if it is a listed company that has issued shares. A smaller company may only supply the most basic of information, and if a company is registered in some of the more secretive jurisdictions, you won’t be able to get any information at all. 

There are three broad categories of information that you can get from a company’s entry in a company register and its annual accounts: 

  • Financial data
  • Textual information
  • Information about connections and relationships

Even if you’re not comfortable looking at the financial data associated with a company, stories can still be found in what its directors and accountants say in their accounts, and what relationships are visible in the information that is published. 

For example, the text sections of a company’s accounts might raise concerns over recruitment or exchange rates; a director may make claims that contradict her public statements; the accountants may say that they’re unable to say that the company is able to pay the debts due in the next 12 months.

Entries about a company’s ownership and relationships might allow you to explore the ‘complex web’ of a particular person or group of companies, and identify specific locations to visit on an investigative report.

Financial data can give you stories about all sorts of activity, from the amount of business an individual company is doing, how much profit it’s making from that, and the tax that it’s paying, to wider issues such as the costs businesses in its sector are facing. Four good categories of story to consider are:

  • Stories about scale: how much profit did the company make last year? How little tax did it pay? How much did the boss get paid? How much did it pay to stop cases going to court?
  • Stories about change: Is the boss’s pay going up? Are staff numbers being cut? Is business booming or has the bubble burst?
  • Stories about ranking: Which companies are doing best or worst in this sector? 
  • Stories about variation: What is happening in the sector which is unusual? Are some companies paying a lot less tax because of money being paid to parent entities?

You can also mix those categories in more exploratory stories that look at a sector from a range of angles.

How to read a cash flow statement


One of the most useful parts of a company account is the cash flow statement. Not all annual reports will include a cash flow statement — it will depend if the company is required to publish one. 

A cash flow statement shows how money has flowed through the company in the last financial year. It starts with the ‘turnover’ or ‘revenue’ at the top — which indicates how much business the company did, regardless of whether it was profitable or not — and then various costs, and other sources of income, are subtracted and added along the way. The amount of tax paid (or refunded) is subtracted (or added), and at the end you can see the profit or loss that the company made.

It won’t always be called a ‘cash flow statement’: you might see it called an ‘income statement’, ‘profit and loss account’, ‘statement of financial performance’ or some other term which uses similar words, but you’re looking for some table of numbers which shows turnover or revenue at the top, and income or losses at the bottom.  

How to read a balance sheet


Another table of numbers to look out for is the balance sheet — sometimes called a statement of financial position. This will have numbers relating to things like assets, debt, creditors, capital and reserves. 

The balance sheet is much less informative than the cash flow statement, but it will give you an idea of the size of the business, what it owns, and what it owes (for some companies this will be the only table they publish).

For example, if a business is presenting itself as owning lots of properties, its balance sheet should show the value of any property that it owns (or at least, owned on the date the accounts relate to). 

Another reason to look at a balance sheet is to see if the company is able to pay its debts in the near future: this is the core purpose of the balance, as it compares what a company owes with what it can sell if it needs to pay off those debts (its assets). 

Look out for different types of assets:

  • “Fixed assets” are physical assets kept for the long term, such as property and equipment, and which may take longer to sell. 
  • “Current assets” are short term assets such as inventory which can (the assumption is) be sold more quickly; ‘securities’ which can be cashed in; and cash itself.
  • “Intangible assets” are things which have value but no physical existence, such as copyrights, domain names, patents, and licensing agreements. It is easy to overvalue some of these.
  • “Goodwill” is even more intangible: it refers to things like brand reputation, expertise and relationships, and again may be overvalued, especially as it cannot be sold to raise money. 

Note that ‘debtors’ in a company’s accounts are those that owe money to the company. Money listed here is an asset, in theory — but a debtor may default on their debt, so if a company has a lot of debtors it is potentially vulnerable on that front. 

In contrast, a ‘creditor’ is someone that the company owes money to. Note that companies quite often owe money to — and are owed money from — other companies in the same group. These loans — along with the interest rates on them — can be one way of moving money around in a group.

You will also notice different types of debts: in particular a distinction is typically made between those that fall due within one year, and those due later. 

How to read the text sections of a company’s accounts

Aside from the financial tables in a set of accounts, different sections of text may be of particular interest to journalists. 

At the front of some accounts you may find a statement from the chairman, typically reflecting on the year covered by the accounts, and looking ahead to the next. Listed companies in particular often have very large annual reports with many pages of text — not just from the chairman, but from the chief executive, board of directors and committees responsible for remuneration, nominations, corporate responsibility or other areas. All of these can be valuable resources for reporting on what a company is doing and saying. The actual financial information in these cases will be buried towards the back.

You can also expect a statement from the accountants somewhere in the accounts. This can be quite standard — and dull — text that is copied and pasted into each set of accounts, detailing what laws and regulations the accounts have been compiled under, what their duties are, and the scope that the report covers. It may, for example, explain that they have not conducted an audit or verified the accuracy of the records. 

But it is also the place where the accountants may express some concerns about the viability of the company as a ‘going concern’ — i.e. can it pay debts due in the next year. It may emphasise particular material risks and uncertainties that could affect the company in the next year, or the accountants may give a “qualified opinion” which includes caveats (such as that they haven’t been able to verify information from the company).

The final section of text is the ‘Notes to the accounts’. This follows the tables of financial information and provides further information on those numbers, often with further tables. The notes to the accounts are where you might find a breakdown of income and spending, how much directors are being paid, dividend payments, and explanations about tax. 

Right at the very end of the notes is a good place to look for information about payments and debts to related parties — this can be extremely useful in identifying potential conflicts of interest and relationships. Some jurisdictions require companies to publish the ‘ultimate owner’ of the business in this section, too. 

How to find relationships between companies and people

Company accounts aren’t just useful in providing information on the money going in and out of a company: they also provide information on the people connected with a particular company, and other companies who might be connected. 

A company’s annual report will list its ‘officers’ (directors and secretary) — but even if there isn’t an annual report you may be able to find their details on the company register entry for the company. You can then search for those names in the same register to find other matches, search other registries or use sites like OpenCorporates and BIFIDEX, to see any other organisations they appear to be connected with. Remember that you will need to check if it’s the same person, rather than another person with the same name: shared details like birthdate or address, or a unique ID, will help.

Addresses are also useful for identifying connections: OpenCorporates and some registries allow you to search by address to find other companies registered at the same location. Again, this may not be evidence of a formal connection, but it can help. 

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