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When you're deciding whether or not to invest in a specific company, having a firm understanding of the balance sheet is critical. So as another round of earnings has been announced, now is a perfect time to look back at recent quarterly reports and identify companies that passed "balance sheets 101" and those that might be in trouble.

Winnebago Passed -- Barely

When it comes to earnings and balance sheets, inventory levels matter.

Going into


(WGO) - Get Winnebago Industries Inc. Report

most recent conference call, I was expecting to hear a lot of the typical current talk about how high energy prices, the slowing economy and systemic credit issues are negatively impacting the company's core recreational vehicle business. However, as I prepared for the call, I noted that while

analysts are expecting a minor drop in

EPS, actual sales are expected to take a dramatic decline.

The only way that Winnebago could possibly achieve this is trick was through cost control, accounting mechanics or tax benefits. Those are all matters which would we would ascertain from the

income statement

. However, there was much more to be concerned about with Winnebago.

Winnebago's "channel inventories" and "company inventories" are high. Channel inventories are products sold by the company to retail vendors, but remain unsold by those vendors. So what? As investors, we care about this metric because high channel inventories will decrease vendor orders from Winnebago as there is less of a need to replenish inventory. Company inventories were also high. This means that Winnebago over-produced inventory which the company could not sell to its retail distributors.

Either of these inventory metrics portends trouble. Taken together, as in Winnebago's case, this combination of high inventory levels could cause a disaster in future quarters.

There were more red flags on Winnebago balance sheet.

At the end of the quarter, the company held $54.2 million of investments in highly rated tax-exempt auction rate securities (ARS). These were recorded as "long-term" investments, whereas, prior to that, they were recorded as "short-term" investments.

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What happened: during the quarter, the company was able to sell 10% of the investment portfolio, but by the time the quarter ended, almost every remaining holding experienced a full or partial "auction failure." The remaining

maturities now range in duration from 16 years to 33 years.

Why is the turning of short-term assets into long term investments problematic? Winnebago had relied on the

liquid nature of the auction rate securities, but it can no longer do so.

Winnebago's Balance Sheet Grade: D.

Merrill Lynch Passed (and Is Improving)

Merrill Lynch

( MER) has a huge portfolio of

asset-backed securities on its balance sheet -- the pricing of which has come under a great deal of scrutiny.

Merrill has been "

writing down

" its mortgage and credit portfolios for the last two quarters as the company seeks to price its balance sheet to market. As a result, Merrill's balance sheet,

capital position, credit worthiness and

liquidity were subject to great deal of speculation.

Merrill, which reported on April 17, was expected to write down its assets for a third straight quarter, this time for an additional $6 billion or so. Fears across Wall Street were that Merrill or

Lehman Brothers

( LEH) would suffer the same fate at

Bear Stearns

( BSC), which was brought to the brink of bankruptcy when it faced

a severe liquidity crisis

, despite statements to the contrary by company president Alan Schwartz.

As expected, when Merrill reported its quarterly results to investors, the company wrote down another

$6.6 billion in writedowns

. While that was not pleasant news to shareholders, Merrill did deliver some other balance sheet related information that clearly differentiated that company's liquidity profile from that of Bear Stearns:

Cash availability stood at $79 billion at the end of fourth quarter of 2007 and rose to $82 billion at the end of first quarter of 2008.

With over $100 billion of bank deposits, the firm has a stable source of funding.

The leveraged loan "book" was reduced by a net $4 billion to $14 billion, which helps get Merrill's "risky" assets off their books.

Thus, unlike Bear Stearns, Merrill has taken a proactive approach to cleaning up its balance sheet in order to evade the grim reaper of bankruptcy and prepare the company for a return to a more normal operating condition.

Merrill Lynch's Balance Sheet Grade: C (but improving).

Delta-Northwest and XM-Sirius: Incomplete

Can two weak balance sheets make one solid balance sheet?

Sirius Satellite Radio

(SIRI) - Get Sirius XM Holdings Inc. Report


XM Satellite Radio

( XMSR) are currently at the altar waiting for regulatory approval to consummate their merger.

This week,

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Delta Air Lines Inc. Report


Northwest Airlines

( NWA) announced



Do these deals make sense from a balance sheet perspective?

Consider this: all four companies have debt-riddled balance sheets.

For the most part, these companies have not been very proficient at generating

cash flow, except when the source of that cash flow is issuing more debt. The satellite radio business has yet to generate consistent profits and the long term survival of the business model is still questioned by many investors and analysts. And the airline industry is experiencing another wave of

bankruptcies (three airlines filed for bankruptcy in the last month).

The motivation to merge these companies comes from the potential ability to generate profits (or fewer losses) and cash flow from operational efficiency. Theoretically, if this occurs the resulting financial condition may permit the

bond ratings agencies to upgrade the combined companies' credit ratings that would result in a lower cost of debt. Other than that, there is no benefit from a balance sheet perspective which would compel me to buy these companies pre- or post-



Cumulative Balance Sheet Grade: Incomplete.

General Electric Passed With Flying Colors

Sometimes bad earnings happened to balance sheets.

Last week,

General Electric

(GE) - Get General Electric Company Report

, one of the largest and most respected companies in the world, delivered

a significant earnings disappointment

that roiled the global financial markets.

What happened: GE succumbed to some of the problems in the credit markets and took some credit losses in the process. Plus, the domestic economy's weakness reflected on poor healthcare and appliance sales. As a result, GE reported a 7 cent lower-than-expected EPS for the quarter.

Beyond the negative headlines, if GE's financial services unit stood on its own, it would qualify as one of the largest

financial companies

in the world. So GE earning 44 cents instead of 51 cents is not exactly signs of a deteriorating company, especially given the current economic and financial environment.

Upon closer inspection, had one listened to

the GE earnings call

, they would have been assured of the company's financial strength. Here are few highlights:

Operating cash flow of $4.9 billion.

Paid $3.0 billion in dividends.

Lowered debt level.

Still held $5 billion in cash.

Asset growth was 20%.

Unlike Merrill Lynch, GE did not have to shrink its balance sheet and the company was able to use its strong financial position to add new business.

GE's Balance Sheet Grade: A.

There are two major lessons that can be taken from these examples. First, investors and analysts should not use preconceived notions of earnings expectations to extrapolate conclusions as to the health of the company's balance sheet. Second, companies can and do take actions to clean up and improve their balance sheet.

Homework Time

Look for companies with leaders that focus on balance sheet management. My firm belief is that a profit and loss (income) statement is an excellent indication of a company's performance, but the balance sheet is the


indicator of a company's financial condition (see "

Balance Sheets: The Good, the Bad and the In-Between


At the time of publication, Rothbort was long MER, although positions can change at any time. Scott Rothbort has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry. In 2002, Rothbort founded LakeView Asset Management, LLC, a registered investment advisor based in Millburn, N.J., which offers customized individually managed separate accounts, including proprietary long/short strategies to its high net worth clientele. Immediately prior to that, Rothbort worked at Merrill Lynch for 10 years, where he was instrumental in building the global equity derivative business and managed the global equity swap business from its inception. Rothbort previously held international assignments in Tokyo, Hong Kong and London while working for Morgan Stanley and County NatWest Securities. Rothbort holds an MBA in finance and international business from the Stern School of Business of New York University and a BS in economics and accounting from the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a Professor of Finance and the Chief Market Strategist for the Stillman School of Business of Seton Hall University. For more information about Scott Rothbort and LakeView Asset Management, LLC, visit the company's Web site at Scott appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.