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Understanding your accounts: the profit and loss account

Profit and loss accounts summarise the trading results of a business over a set period of time. Image courtesy of: Steve Woods/rgbstock.com
Profit and loss accounts summarise the trading results of a business over a set period of time. Image courtesy of: Steve Woods/rgbstock.com
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This article was written by Jo Nockels, Training and Communications Manager of TaxAssist Accountants, the UK’s largest network providing tax and accountancy advice and services specifically for small businesses.

The profit and loss account forms part of a business’ financial statements. It summarises the trading results of a business over a period of time (typically one year). In contrast, the balance sheet is a ‘snapshot’ of the assets and liabilities of the business at a particular point in time.

So you could think of the profit and loss as a video of what has happened over the year; and the balance sheet as a still photograph.

The financial statements are very important. Key business decisions taken by the owners/managers are often based on the financial statements. Furthermore, the figures are included on documents such as tax returns and finance applications, and can affect relationships with investors, customers and suppliers.

Preparation of the profit and loss account

If you are VAT registered, your income and expenses are likely to be shown ‘net’ of VAT, i.e. any VAT charged/ incurred is not included in the profit and loss account.

Also, the profit and loss account only shows ‘revenue’ transactions that are connected with the commercial activity of the business. This means income such as grants, cash injected by the owners and bank loans received are generally not shown here, and any purchases of significant equipment, loan repayments, drawings, HM Revenue & Customs payments etc won’t be shown either. Such items will affect the balance sheet instead.

The financial statements needn’t be 100 percent accurate, but they should be free from ‘material’ errors. There is no absolute measure of materiality, but loosely speaking, a material error is defined as an error that would affect decision making.

The trading account

The top section of the profit and loss account up to and including the gross profit, is referred to as the ‘trading account’. This is because it shows only the direct trading activities of the business.

Sales

At the top of the trading account is the sales figure – this will include all of the work invoiced, whether the invoice has been physically paid by the customer or not. It may even include work you have undertaken but not yet completed (let alone invoiced), depending on if you provide services and the particular circumstances they are provided under.

Cost of sales

Cost of sales should, as its name infers, represent the costs incurred to generate your sales. And as with sales, any invoices for goods or services you have received from your suppliers will be included, whether they have been paid or not.

You will also notice from the example below, that cost of sales includes an adjustment for stock. Any stock that you hold at the period end has not been used to generate this year’s sales. Therefore, the stock adjustment excludes the stock at the period end and includes the stock brought forward from the last period. This ensures that only the stock purchases used for the current period’s sales are reflected.

Gross profit and the gross profit margin

Gross profit is simply the difference between your sales and cost of sales.

The gross profit margin is probably one of the most important figures to the business owner and manager. It shows the sales mark-up and can therefore highlight inefficiencies and pricing issues.

Administrative expenses

Administrative expenses are the business overheads. You will note that in the example below, wages have been included under this heading. Wages can be included in cost of sales or administrative expenses, it depends on how directly attributable the wages are to the generation of sales and also, where the owners/managers want it shown. For instance, some traders like to see their gross profit margin without the impact of wages, and therefore will include wages under administrative expenses instead.

Finance charges and other income are normally shown separately from administrative expenses.

Interpreting and understanding the profit and loss account

If your business is fairly consistent, look for comparisons with previous years. If there are any deviations from the general trend, ask yourself if you are able to explain them.

Also, look for comparisons with your competitors and the industry the business operates in.

Ultimately, the profit and loss account should tell a story of what has happened during the year, so you as the business owner/manager are best placed to make sure the profit and loss account shows a true reflection of this ‘story.’

An accountant can help you to understand and interpret the figures in the profit and loss account, and can highlight the areas that may require further investigation. They will also be able to identify any ‘anomalies’ which might trigger the attention of HM Revenue & Customs, such as a large increase in the cost of repairs or a dramatic downturn in drawings.

Profit and loss account example


Biography
Jo Nockels is Training and Communications Manager at TaxAssist Accountants. The company was founded in 1995, specifically to serve the tax and accountancy needs of small businesses. Currently, TaxAssist Accountants has a network of 200 offices throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. As a network they look after 36,000 clients, and each TaxAssist accountant operates from an independent, local office and has access to specialist tax and accountancy advice and back up from our national support centre.