Accounts Receivable on the Balance Sheet

Image shows three images: an accounts receivable invoice, a triangle with an exclamation point in it, and a desk with stacks of cash on it as well as a computer monitor. Text reads: "What to know about accounts receivable: the term represents money that is owed to a company by its customers for products or services that it has delivered but for which it has not yet received payment. Money in a/r is money that's not in the bank, which exposes the company to a degree of risk. Normally, companies build up a cash reserve to prepare for such anticipated losses"

Image by Maddy Price © The Balance 2019

Accounts receivable, sometimes shortened to "receivables" or A/R, is money that is owed to a company by its customers. If a company has delivered products or services but not yet received payment, it's an account receivable.

The nature of a company's accounts receivable balance depends on the sector and industry in which it operates, as well as the particular credit policies the corporate management has in place. A company documents its A/R as a current asset on what's called a balance sheet, which shows how much money a company has (the assets) and how much it owes (the liabilities). Here's why understanding the A/R is important in assessing a company's overall health.

Recording A/R on the Balance Sheet

The best way to understand accounts receivable is to view a transaction and how it ends up on the balance sheet.

Imagine that Walmart wants to order a new special-edition boxed set of books from the publisher.

  • Walmart negotiates to buy 50,000 units that won't be available anywhere else. The books are printed and packaged, and the publisher will charge Walmart $30 per set. Walmart will sell the sets for $90 each to its customers.
  • When the publisher ships the 50,000 units to Walmart, it will include a bill for $1.5 million (50,000 x $30). Walmart then receives the physical books, and the publisher is legally entitled to the money but hasn't yet been paid.
  • That $1.5 million sits on the publisher's balance sheet as an account receivable. On the flip side, it sits on Walmart's balance sheet as both an inventory asset and a liability called an account payable.

Why Payment Terms Are Important

Generally, a company that sells products on credit, meaning before it actually gets paid, sets terms for its A/R. The terms include the number of days within which customers must pay their bill before they are charged a late fee. When customers don't adhere to the payment terms, the seller can approach its customer and offer new terms or some other remedy to collect on the bill.

If no progress takes place, the accounts receivable balance is either turned over to a collection agency or, in more extreme cases, the firm sues the person or institution that owes it money, seeking relief from a court by seizing assets.

Firms often use any of a number of customary A/R terms. These are expressed as "Net 10," "Net 15," "Net 30," "Net 60," or "Net 90." The numbers refer to the number of days in which the net amount is due and expected to be paid. For example, Net 10 means you have 10 days from the time of the invoice to pay your balance.

To free up cash flow and increase the speed at which they can access funds, many companies offer an early-pay discount on longer-dated A/R balances to motivate their customers to pay them sooner.

It is usually in the customer's best interest to take advantage of the discount and pay early because the discount saves them more than they could have earned hanging on to their money.

Large A/R Balances Can Be Risky

Having a large A/R balance on the balance sheet seems positive. You would think every company wants a flood of future, expected cash coming their way. However, money in A/R is money that's not in the bank, which exposes the company to a degree of risk. If Walmart went bankrupt or simply didn't pay the publisher, the publisher would be forced to write down the A/R balance on its balance sheet by $1.5 million.

Absorbing this loss and being stuck with 50,000 units of custom books could be devastating to the publisher. If you're wondering about the future growth prospects of a company, make sure to take a look at its accounts receivable book. It should be well diversified.

If one customer or client represents more than 5% or 10% of the accounts payable, this creates exposure and might be cause for concern.

Normally, companies build up a cash reserve to prepare for situations such as this. Reserves are specific accounting charges that reduce profits each year, approximating anticipated losses. If reserves are inadequate or need to be increased, additional charges need to be made on the company's income statement. Reserves are used to cover all sorts of issues, ranging from warranty return expectations to bad loan provisions at banks.

An Alternative to A/R

Some companies have a different business model and actually get paid upfront. In this case, the business doesn't record an account receivable, but instead enters a liability on its balance sheet to an account known as unearned revenue or prepaid revenue.

As the money is earned, either by shipping promised products, using the "percentage of completion" method, or simply as time passes, it gets transferred from unearned revenue on the balance sheet to sales revenue on the income statement. This reduces the liability and increases reported sales.

A good illustration of this is in the asset management industry. Clients often pay fees to a Registered Investment Advisor quarterly, billed in advance. The advisory company receives the cash but hasn't yet earned that cash. For each business day that passes, a certain percentage of fees becomes earned and non-refundable.

An asset management company that opts to bill in arrears, on the other hand, would temporarily have an A/R balance on its balance sheet, usually for only a day or two as fees are deducted from client custody accounts.