Forecasts vs. projections: What’s the big difference?

Financial statements look at historical performance. But there are times when you want forward-looking reports to help your business make strategic investment decisions, evaluate the viability of a turnaround plan or apply for a loan. Your accountant can help ensure the assumptions underlying prospective financial statements make sense in today’s volatile marketplace.

Key definitions

When creating forward-looking financials, you generally have two options under AICPA Attestation Standards Section 301, Financial Forecasts and Projections:

1. Forecast. Prospective financial statements that present, to the best of the responsible party’s knowledge and belief, an entity’s expected financial position, results of operations and cash flows. A financial forecast is based on the responsible party’s assumptions reflecting the conditions it expects to exist and the course of action it expects to take.

2. Projection. Prospective financial statements that present, to the best of the responsible party’s knowledge and belief, given one or more hypothetical assumptions, an entity’s expected financial position, results of operations and cash flows. A financial projection is sometimes prepared to present one or more hypothetical courses of action for evaluation, as in response to a question such as, “What would happen if … ?”

Subtle difference

The terms “forecast” and “projection” are sometimes used interchangeably. But there’s a noteworthy distinction, a forecast represents expected results based on the expected course of action. These are the most common type of prospective reports for companies with steady historical performance that plan to maintain the status quo.

On the flip side, a projection estimates the company’s expected results based on various hypothetical situations that may or may not occur. These statements are typically used when management is uncertain whether performance targets will be met. So, they may be appropriate for start-ups or when evaluating results over a longer period because there’s a good chance that customer demand or market conditions could change over time.

Critical components

Regardless of whether you opt for a forecast or projection, the report will generally be organized using the same format as your financial statements with an income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement. Most prospective statements conclude with a statement of key assumptions that underlie the numbers. Many assumptions are driven by your company’s historical financial statements, along with a detailed sales budget for the year.

Instead of relying on static forecasts or projections — which can quickly become outdated in a volatile marketplace — some companies now use rolling 12-month versions that are adaptable and look beyond year end. This helps you identify and respond to weaknesses in your assumptions, as well as unexpected changes in the marketplace. For example, a manufacturer that experiences a shortage of raw materials could experience an unexpected drop in sales until conditions improve. If the company maintains a rolling forecast, it would be able to revise its plans for such a temporary disruption.

Contact us

Planning for the future is an important part of running a successful business. While no forecast or projection will be 100% accurate in these uncertain times, we can help you evaluate the alternatives for issuing prospective financial statements and offer fresh, objective insights about what may lie ahead for your business.

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