In business, horizontal analysis refers to a type of fundamental analysis in which a financial analyst uses certain financial data to assess a company’s performance over time. The analyst compares the same items or ratios for a particular company over a period of time in order to assess the company’s growth during that time. Horizontal analysis can also be performed on multiple companies in the same industry, to assess a company’s performance relative to its competitors.
The data used in horizontal analysis is found in a company’s financial statements, which include the balance sheet, income statement, and statement of cash flows. It can be line items, such as expense items, or it can be a ratio. A ratio is determined by comparing two or more items, for example, dividing expenses by net sales to determine the operating ratio.
Horizontal analysis can be performed on a quarterly or on an annual basis. Performance can be compared to the previous period or, in the case of quarterly analysis, to the same quarter in a previous year. If an analyst compares the same information from one quarter to the next, it is referred to as quarter-to-quarter, as in, ‘quarter-to-quarter sales increased 10 percent.’ If the comparison is to the same quarter in the prior year, it is referred to as quarter-over-quarter, as in, ‘quarter-over-quarter earnings were up 3 percent.’ In seasonal industries, such as retail, the quarter-over-quarter comparison is usually more valuable as it reflects the change compared to the same quarter a year ago.
The value of horizontal analysis lies in its usefulness in comparing the results of one company over time to determine whether its financial situation is improving. It is also useful for comparing the results of multiple companies in the same industry to determine which company has the best performance over time. It is most useful when comparing companies in the same industry, because metrics such as gross margin can vary widely from one industry to another.
In contrast to horizontal analysis, vertical analysis refers to the representation of assets, liabilities and equities as a percentage of the whole. These three major balance sheet categories are added up, and each one is expressed as the percent of the total it represents. Vertical analysis can be useful in comparing companies of different sizes, as it makes it easy to see which company has a greater percentage of liabilities as opposed to equity, or which company has more assets, relative to liabilities and equity.