August 11, 2023
min read
Written by: 
Nikolaus Hilgenfeldt

Operating Cash Flow vs Free Cash Flow - What’s the Difference?

In finance and business analysis, two fundamental metrics, Operating Cash Flow (OCF) and Free Cash Flow (FCF), stand as crucial indicators of a company's financial health and operational performance.

While both offer insights into a company's cash flow dynamics, they serve distinct purposes and reveal different facets of its financial operations.

This article delves into the contrasting characteristics of OCF and FCF, unraveling the nuances that make them essential tools for understanding a company's financial standing and potential for growth.

Let's check it out!

I What is Operating Cash Flow (OCF)?

Operating Cash Flow (OCF), also known as cash flow from operations, is an important financial measure.

It shows how much cash a company makes or spends from its main day-to-day activities.


You can think of Operating Cash Flow as a way to check how well a company is doing financially and how much money it gets from its regular business operations.

1. Components of OCF

The components of Operating Cash Flow typically include:

💰 Net Income — This factor represents what's left after the company subtracts all the costs, taxes, and interest from its total earnings during a certain time.

🏢 Depreciation and Amortization — Depreciation represents the allocation of the cost of tangible assets (like buildings and equipment) over their useful lives.

Amortization refers to the same process for intangible assets (like patents and copyrights). While these are non-cash expenses, they reduce a company's taxable income and are added back to calculate OCF.

📊 Changes in Working Capital — This element is about how much money the company needs to run its day-to-day operations.

It's calculated by subtracting what the company owes (like bills) from what it has (like money coming in).

Changes in working capital affect cash flow. More working capital means less cash available, and less working capital means more cash.

📈 Accounts Receivable and Payable — When the company's owed more money by others (receivables), it ties up cash. When the company owes more money to others (payables), it frees up cash.

📦 Inventory Changes — If the company has more unsold goods (inventory), it means money is tied up. Selling inventory frees up cash.

📜 Other Non-Cash Items — Some items like taxes that aren't paid yet, compensation with stocks, and other non-cash stuff are added back to the net income to get the OCF.

2. Calculating OCF

Figuring out Operating Cash Flow (OCF) involves a few steps:

1. Calculate Net Income — To kick things off, figure out the company's net income. You can usually spot this in the company's income statement.


Net income is what's left after subtracting all the expenses, like taxes, interest, and other costs, from the total revenue.

💡 Net Income = Total Revenue - Total Expenses

2. Add Back Non-cash Expenses — Non-cash expenses are entries that reduce net income without direct cash outflows.

The most typical illustration is depreciation.


Additional instances encompass amortization or stock-based compensation.

💡 Net Income + Non-cash Expenses

3. Calculate Changes in Working Capital Working capital represents the contrast between current assets and current liabilities.

Alterations in working capital shed light on the amount of cash locked into the company's everyday operations.


Compute the shift in working capital by deducting the prior period's working capital from the present period's counterpart.

💡 Changes in Working Capital = Current Working Capital - Previous Working Capital

Note that if the current working capital is less than the previous working capital, you would subtract the result, as it would represent a cash inflow.

4. Calculate Operating Cash Flow — Finally, subtract the changes in working capital from the net income and non-cash expenses total.


💡 Operating Cash Flow = Net Income + Non-cash Expenses - Changes in Working Capital

It's important to note that calculation methods can differ based on various financial reporting standards and company approaches.

For accurate calculations, always consult the company's financial statements and relevant guidelines.

3. Purpose of OCF

Operating Cash Flow (OCF) aims to gauge the cash generated or used by a company's main operational actions during a specific period, usually a fiscal quarter or year.

In simpler terms, OCF shows the cash a company makes from its main business operations once all the necessary costs and expenses have been accounted for.

Investors and analysts use OCF to:

  1. Maintain operations - Positive OCF means a company has enough cash to cover everyday expenses and stay financially stable.
  2. Invest in growth - Strong OCF lets companies reinvest in research, development, and operations for future expansion.
  3. Repay debt - OCF can be used to pay off debts or meet financial commitments.
  4. Distribute dividends - Companies with good OCF might share profits with shareholders.
  5. Evaluate efficiency - By comparing OCF to net income, analysts can see how well a company turns earnings into cash.

Remember, while OCF is valuable, it's best understood alongside other financial indicators to get a complete picture of a company's financial health.

Also, OCF doesn't include cash flows from investing or financing activities, which are covered separately in the Cash Flow from Investing and Cash Flow from Financing sections of the cash flow statement.

II What is Free Cash Flow (FCF)?

Free cash flow (FCF) is a financial measure designed to quantify the cash a business generates and can distribute to its investors, encompassing both equity and debt holders.

This metric captures the cash remaining after the company has addressed its operational costs, capital investments, and tax obligations. FCF is a significant gauge of a company's financial well-being, illustrating its capacity to support expansion, settle debts, and provide returns to shareholders.

1. Components of FCF

The three main components of free cash flow are:

💰 Operating Cash Flow (OCF) — As we already established, is the cash generated from a company's core operating activities.

It represents the cash that a company generates before considering its investments in non-operating assets like investments, loans, and other financial activities.

🏗️ Capital Expenditures (CapEx) — Capital expenditures are the company's investments in its fixed assets, such as property, equipment, machinery, and infrastructure.

These investments are essential for maintaining and expanding the company's operations. 

📊 Change in Net Borrowing — This element refers to the variance between a government's overall borrowing and the amount it repays on its debt during a defined time frame.

This differential reveals whether a government is accruing additional debt or diminishing its existing debt burden.

Furthermore, fluctuations in net borrowing signify alterations in a government's fiscal strategies and its competence in debt management.

2. Calculating FCF

To calculate Free Cash Flow (FCF), adhere to these steps:

1. Calculate Operating Cash Flow (OCF) — Begin by figuring out the Operating Cash Flow (OCF) for the designated period, as we explained in the previous section. 

💡 OCF = Net Income + Depreciation and Amortization - Changes in Working Capital.

2. Subtract Capital Expenditures (CapEx) — Determine the capital expenditures or investments in long-term assets made by the company during the same duration.

This might encompass purchases of property, equipment, or substantial assets.


Deduct the value of these capital expenditures from the OCF.

💡 Net Income - Capital Expenditures = Adjusted Net Income

3. Adjust for Interest Expenses and Taxes (Optional) — If calculating Unlevered Free Cash Flow (UFCF), which omits debt financing effects, subtract interest expenses and taxes from the OCF after CapEx deduction.


4. Apply Adjustments — Introduce further adjustments as per your analysis requirements. This could involve adding back non-cash expenses or subtracting non-operating income.

In essence, the Free Cash Flow (FCF) formula can be encapsulated as follows:


💡 FCF = OCF - CapEx ± Interest Expenses ± Taxes ± Other Adjustments

Bear in mind, FCF showcases the cash a company generates that can be channeled to debt holders, equity holders, or reinvested in the business.

It's a pivotal gauge of a company's financial well-being and its ability to fuel growth, manage debt, and yield returns to shareholders.

3. Purpose of FCF

Free cash flow (FCF) provides crucial insights into a company's cash generated from its operations that can be utilized for various purposes.

Investors, analysts, and managers employ this significant financial metric to assess a company's financial health and performance.

Calculated by deducting capital expenditures (CAPEX) from operating cash flow, FCF serves several pivotal functions:

  1. Investment Opportunities - FCF indicates available cash for growth endeavors such as expansion, acquisitions, or product development.
  2. Debt Repayment - FCF can be allocated to pay off debt, enhancing the company's creditworthiness.
  3. Dividends and Share Repurchases- FCF can enhance shareholder value through dividends or buying back shares.
  4. Financial Health - Positive FCF signals robust financial foundations and resilience during economic adversities.
  5. Valuation and Analysis - Investors assess a company's value using FCF-related metrics.
  6. Strategic Decision-Making - Companies utilize FCF for operational and investment choices.
  7. Risk Assessment - Changes in FCF can highlight financial risks, assisting in risk management.

Remember that FCF interpretation varies based on the industry and growth stage.

Positive FCF doesn't always guarantee success, as reinvestment for growth can be a priority.

On the other hand, young companies that are growing quickly may not be negatively affected by a lack of free cash flow.

Evaluating FCF in conjunction with other factors offers a comprehensive understanding of a company's performance and potential.

III Key Differences between OCF and FCF

Operating Cash Flow (OCF) centers around the cash generated and utilized within a company's fundamental business operations, revealing its operational efficiency.

In contrast, Free Cash Flow (FCF) takes Operating Cash Flow.

It deducts capital expenditures to present a more distinct view of the cash accessible for growth, debt settlement, dividends, and other strategic endeavors.

While OCF accentuates operational cash flows, FCF illuminates the company's potential to invest in expansion and offer returns to shareholders, all while upholding its financial solidity.


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In the dynamic landscape of finance, grasping the distinction between Operating Cash Flow (OCF) and Free Cash Flow (FCF) becomes a compass guiding me through intricate financial terrains.

OCF sheds light on a company's operational prowess and the cash it generates from its core endeavors.

At the same time, FCF takes center stage, incorporating capital expenditures to unveil the cash available for strategic leaps.

Like reliable companions, these two metrics offer distinct angles on a company's financial well-being.

Mastering their individuality equips you, as an investor, analyst, or business entity, with the insight to navigate the intricate waters, ensuring:

🎯 Comprehensive assessment of a company's cash flow dynamics,

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