Fundamental analysis is a method used to determine the value of a stock by analyzing the financial data that is ‘fundamental' to the company. That means that fundamental analysis takes into consideration only those variables that are directly related to the company itself, such as its earnings, its dividends, and its sales. Fundamental analysis does not look at the overall state of the market nor does it include behavioral variables in its methodology. It focuses exclusively on the company's business in order to determine whether or not the stock should be bought or sold.
Critics of fundamental analysis often charge that the practice is either irrelevant or that it is inherently flawed. The first group, made up largely of proponents of the efficient market hypothesis, say that fundamental analysis is a useless practice since a stock's price will always already take into account the company's financial data (see InvestorGuide University: Efficient Markets). In other words, they argue that it is impossible to learn anything new about a company by analyzing its fundamentals that the market as a whole does not already know, since everyone has access to the same financial information. The other major argument against fundamental analysis is more practical than theoretical. These critics charge that fundamental analysis is too unscientific a process, and that it's difficult to get a clear picture of a company's value when there are so many qualitative factors such as a company's management and its competitive landscape.
However, such critics are in the minority. Most individual investors and investment professionals believe that fundamental analysis is useful, either alone or in combination with other techniques. If you decide that fundamental analysis is the method for you, you'll find that a company's financial statements (its income statement, its balance sheet and its cash flow statement) will be indispensable resources for your analysis (see InvestorGuide University: Stock Reports). And even if you're not totally sold on the idea of fundamental analysis, it's probably a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with some of the valuation measures it uses since they are often talked about in other types of stock valuation techniques as well.
It is often said that earnings are the "bottom line" when it comes to valuing a company's stock, and indeed fundamental analysis places much emphasis upon a company's earnings. Simply put, earnings are how much profit (or loss) a company has made after subtracting expenses. During a specific period of time, all public companies are required to report their earnings on a quarterly basis through a 10-Q Report (see InvestorGuide University: 10-Q Report). Earnings are important to investors because they give an indication of the company's expected dividends and its potential for growth and capital appreciation. That does not necessarily mean, however, that low or negative earnings always indicate a bad stock; for example, many young companies report negative earnings as they attempt to grow quickly enough to capture a new market, at which point they'll be even more profitable than they otherwise might have been. The key is to look at the data underlying a company's earnings on its financial statements and to use the following profitability ratios to determine whether or not the stock is a sound investment (see InvestorGuide University: Income Statements).