What is net income (NI)?

Net income is a critical financial metric that helps investors understand a company's profitability.

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You'll find net income near the bottom of a company's financial statement, also called its profit and loss statement. Net income is a critically important metric that investors must comprehend to understand a company's profitability.

What is net income?

In simple terms, a company's net income is revenue minus all expenses. Starting with total revenue, follow these steps to calculate net income:

  1. Subtract the cost of goods sold (COGS): These are the direct costs associated with producing and delivering products and services that have already been sold. Subtracting COGS from revenue yields gross profit. Gross profit as a percentage of revenue is the gross margin.
  2. Subtract operating expenses: These include costs associated with sales, marketing, research and development, administrative functions, and other areas that support the business. Operating expenses also include one-time costs, such as restructuring charges and inventory write-downs. Subtracting operating expenses from gross profit yields operating income. Operating income as a percentage of revenue is the operating margin.
  3. Subtract interest expenses: A company in debt, whether through bank loans or outstanding bonds, will generally have to pay interest on that debt.
  4. Subtract other miscellaneous expenses: This can include various items, which vary from company to company. Subtracting interest and miscellaneous expenses from operating income yields pre-tax income.
  5. Subtract income tax expense: When a company produces a positive pre-tax income, it is generally required to pay income taxes. Subtracting taxes from pre-tax income yields net income or net profit. Net income as a percentage of revenue is the net profit margin.

Understanding net income

When someone talks about a company's 'bottom line', they're usually talking about net income. A positive net income tells you that a company has turned a profit; a negative net income, or net loss, indicates that a company is unprofitable.

Net income is an accounting figure. Companies generally use accrual accounting, under which payments and expenses appear when earned or incurred. A payment that a company receives is only counted as revenue when that company actually delivers the product or service, not when the payment hits the company's bank account.

Expenses are treated the same way. For example, a company records the COGS associated with an item not when it's produced but when sold, regardless of whether it has received payment. COGS also includes non-cash expenses such as depreciation, while operating costs include non-cash expenses such as stock-based compensation.

Net income can be volatile

While it would be nice if the net income of every stock in your portfolio rose each year without fail, that's unlikely to be the case. 

Net income is the result of subtracting a large number (total expenses) from another large number (total revenue). A small change in either can lead to a massive difference in net income.

A piece of the puzzle

Net income is a useful and essential profitability metric, but it's not the only one. For example, it does not represent the amount of cash a company generates.

To fully understand a company's profitability, pairing net income with free cash flow is your best bet. Net income is found on the income statement; free cash flow is on the cash flow statement. Free cash flow measures a company's cash generated through operating activities in a given period.

Another thing to note about net income is that it can sometimes be a poor representation of profitability. One example: Generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, require that unrealised gains and losses on equity investments be recognised in calculating net income. Suppose a company owns a substantial stock portfolio; swings in the portfolio's value influence net income and can distort the company's profitability.

Frequently Asked Questions

Consider a hypothetical company, XYZ Corp, with a total revenue of $500,000 in a particular year. We subtract IRS expenses from this revenue to calculate XYZ Corp's net income. Suppose the COGS is $200,000, operating expenses are $100,000, interest expenses are $20,000, miscellaneous expenses amount to $10,000, and the income tax expense is $50,000.

By subtracting these expenses ($200,000 + $100,000 + $20,000 + $10,000 + $50,000 = $380,000) from the total revenue ($500,000), we find that XYZ Corp's net income is $120,000. The net income is XYZ Corp's actual profit that year after covering all its costs.

Net income and gross profit are both vital to understanding a company's financial performance, but they serve different purposes. Gross profit is calculated by subtracting only the cost of goods sold (COGS) from total revenue, providing insight into production and sales efficiency. It does not account for other operating expenses, interest, taxes, or miscellaneous expenses. 

Net income, on the other hand, is a more inclusive measure, which subtracts all expenses from total revenue. Net income, therefore, offers a more comprehensive view of profitability, reflecting a company's ability to manage all costs associated with running the business, not just the direct costs of producing goods or services.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.