Limitations of Ratio Analysis

Ratio analysis, without a doubt, is amongst the most powerful tools of financial analysis. Any investor, who wants to be more efficient at their job, must devote more time towards understanding ratios and ratio analysis. However, this does not mean that it is free of limitations. Like all techniques, financial ratios have their limitations too. Understanding the limitations will help investors understand the possible shortcomings with ratios and avoid them. Here are the shortcomings:

Misleading Financial Statements

The first and foremost threat to ratio analysis is deliberate misleading statements issued by the management. The management of most companies is aware that investors look at certain numbers like sales, earnings, cash flow etc very seriously. Other numbers on the financial statements do not get such attention. They therefore manipulate the numbers within the legal framework to make important metrics look good. This is a common practice amongst publicly listed companies and is called “Window Dressing”. Investors need to be aware of such window dressing and must be careful in calculating and interpreting ratios based on these numbers.


Comparison is the crux of ratio analysis. Once ratios have been calculated, they need to be compared with other companies or over time. However, many times companies have accounting policies that do not match with each other. This makes it impossible to have any meaningful ratio analysis. Regulators all over the world are striving to make financial statements standardized. However in many cases, companies can still choose accounting policies which will make their statements incomparable.

Qualitative Factors

Comparison over time is another important technique used in ratio analysis. It is called horizontal analysis. However, many times comparison over time is meaningless because of inflation. Two companies may be using the same machine with the same efficiency but one will have a better ratio because it bought the machine earlier at a low price. Also, since the machine was purchased earlier, it may be closer to impairment. But the ratio does not reflect this.

Subjective Interpretation

Financial ratios are established “thumb of rules” about the way a business should operate. However some of these rules of thumb have become obsolete. Therefore when companies come with a new kind of business model, ratios show that the company is not a good investment. In reality the company is just “unconventional”. Many may even call these companies innovative. Ratio analysis of such companies does not provide meaningful information. Investors must look further to make their decisions.

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