July 20, 2011, 4:41 p.m.
posted by handcore
The Best Data for Free
Data that helps you evaluate investments doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg—or anything at all for that matter.
SEC filings, such as the 10-K and 10-Q forms, provide data as reported by the company. Without any value-added manipulation [Hack #15] and [Hack #20], you have to judge for yourself whether data truly reflects a company's performance. Many web sites provide information suitable for your initial research and qualitative evaluations. In addition, you can use Excel web queries [Hack #7] to extract data directly from web pages into a spreadsheet for processing and ratio analysis. The only time free data falls short is when you want to feed an investment analysis program [Hack #38] and [Hack #53] that runs on your computer. These programs require data in a specific format, and it's just too much trouble to format free data to fit their specifications.
When you want to put financial ratios (see Chapter 4) to the test, you need data from financial statements—and lots of it. For almost effortless downloads of financial statement data, there's only one free alternative: EdgarScan [Hack #18].
Many web sites provide easy access to SEC filings, such as the 10-K and 10-Q reports. In most cases, you can view the filings on the screen or download them as Adobe PDF, HTML, or rich text format files. If the web site uses HTML tables to display the SEC filing, you can use Excel web queries to extract the data to a spreadsheet. The best web sites in this category not only offer access to SEC filings, but also include a comprehensive financial dossier for each company with an intuitive interface that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. Consider the following web sites when you want to view company data or use web queries to download tabular data:
The Reuters Investor web site (http://www.investor.reuters.com) gets my vote for the most comprehensive and most navigable stock page around. The navigation bar in the left margin starts with an overview, proceeds to basic information, such as quotes, price charts, a company profile, and a list of officers and directors, and then provides additional links under the News, Finances, Sentiment, and Analysis categories. Most of the links are available at all times so it's easy to find the information you want. To access the company financial statements, click Financial Statements under the Financial Info heading. If you would rather see ratios that are already calculated and shown side by side with industry and index averages, click Ratios under the Finances heading. Ratios are distributed among several categories.
Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com) is right up there with Reuters Investor. In addition to the navigation bar, the Summary page includes links to other information you might want. You can access links to SEC filings by clicking SEC Filings under the Company heading. To view the filings on the screen, click Income Statement, Balance Sheet, or Cash Flow under the Financials heading. The Competitors link shows a few measures for the company you're studying compared to values for its closest competitors and the industry averages. The Industry link takes you to a page with information about the industry to which the company belongs. Yahoo! Finance is also the best site for downloading historical price files [Hack #17].
MSN Money (http://money.msn.com) is another strong contender. The navigation bar includes many links to financial information. However, unlike Reuters Investor, some additional links are available only when you navigate to a specific web page. If you're a visual person, you'll appreciate the graphs of financial data that MSN Money displays.
If you're looking for SEC filings and nothing but SEC filings, the obvious source is the SEC, right? Well, yes and no. The SEC web site (http://sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm) does provide links to download any SEC filing for any company for the past ten years. The interface, however, isn't very user-friendly. Free EDGAR (http://www.freeedgar.com) offers all the same filings as the SEC site, but you can obtain the filings much more easily. Type in a ticker symbol, click Search, and then click the VIEW FILINGS link on the Search Results page, and you're there. As described in [Hack #18], EdgarScan provides not only SEC filings but SEC filing information in standardized formats and downloadable files.
In addition to the reports that the SEC requires, companies publish annual and quarterly reports. Annual reports strive to please the shareholders rather than a government agency—the reports are often printed on fancy paper with many colors and pictures. In reality, the appearance of the annual report reveals a company's philosophy. Of course, the contents of an annual report can do that as well. The Public Register's Annual Report Service offers annual reports for over 3,000 companies, available in Adobe PDF format or hardcopy. You can also obtain annual reports, quarterly reports, SEC filings, and other types of investor information directly from the web site of the company you're evaluating—just type the company name into the Search box at Google (http://www.google.com). On the company web page, look for an Investor Relations, Financial Reports, or similar link.