I consider myself a value investor. To me, all that means is that I am price-conscious. It doesn't matter what type of company I look at or what its situation is. The bottom line is that I refuse to pay more than an investment is worth.
If I am not going to pay too much, then I have to make an estimate of an investment's value. There are different ways to calculate value; you have probably seen many of them in the Fool's School. But today I want to focus on the discounted cash flow analysis.
John Burr Williams developed the idea in the '50s, and Warren Buffett has evangelized it in the years since. Despite its power and simplicity, there are areas where we need to tread carefully. Used Foolishly, DCF can be a great friend; used foolishly, DCF can be our worst enemy. So let's look at DCF carefully, because I don't want you to pay too much for an investment.
Here's what we're up against
First, we need the equation. You may already know it, but I'll present it here for reference:
Value = Sum[Cash Flow(t)/(1+k)^t] from t = 1 to infinity
We'll call this the long form. All you need to do is predict all of the future cash flows and discount them back to the present at the rate of k. What could be easier? For simplicity, we'll define "cash flow" as cash flow from operations minus capital expenditures.
Pitfall No. 1: We don't know jack
I know that sounds harsh, but it's the truth. We cannot consistently predict the cash flows and their growth rates with any accuracy; the business environment is far too dynamic. Of course, we should try to make the best estimates we can. And that means being careful about our assumptions and predictions because we don't want to have the pitfalls of the equation work against us.
Merck
The equation is not for calculating precise answers, like in physics and engineering. I think it is Foolish for making estimates based on personal judgments. The better the judgment, the better the estimate.
Pitfall No. 2: Stay away from critical mass situations
There is a simplified form of this equation, assuming constant growth and a constant discount rate.
Value = Cash Flow(t = 0)*(1+g)/(k-g) where
g = growth
k = discount rate
t = 0 is the cash flow from the previous year
One reason we cannot rely on the equation for precise answers is that there is a point of critical mass. In 1946, scientist Louis Slotin died from radiation poisoning after he accidentally let two half-spheres of beryllium-coated plutonium touch during an experiment. When the two halves touched, they reached the critical mass required to sustain a nuclear reaction.
The equation above is valid only if the discount rate is greater than the growth rate (k > g). If k is less than or equal to g, the equation is undefined. Our critical mass pitfall comes when g starts to get close to k. As this happens, value starts to get really big, really fast.
For illustration, let's look at Google
(on 12/31/2004) | |||||
---|---|---|---|---|---|
Diluted Shares | 272.8 | Market Cap | $52,590 | CFFO | $977 |
Price | $192.78 | Debt | $0 | CAPEX | $319 |
Cash | $2,100 | FCF | $658 | ||
Enterprise Value | $50,490 | ||||
Assume k | 10% | 25% | 50% | ||
Solve for g | 8.60% | 23.40% | 48.10% | ||
k - g | 1.40% | 1.60% | 1.90% |
The results tell us that cash flow needs to grow at 23.4% per year from now until infinity to achieve a 25% annual return. So in year 19, Google will have to generate $35.7 billion in cash. For comparison, Microsoft
Pitfall No. 3: Money for nothing.
So if the simplified form of the equation is breaking down, what about using the long form? We can break the equation into parts: a fast-growth part and a slower-growth part. Let's assume that Google can grow cash flow at 100% per year for the next five years and at a slower rate after that. Again, let's use a discount rate of 25%. I know you Fools are wondering how I can have a growth rate higher than the discount rate. In the long form of the equation, there's nothing that says we can't. But let's think carefully about what that means.
Essentially, it means that we are getting money for nothing. It implies that the cash flows are more valuable simply because they are growing. It also implies that our investment has infinite value and that we are guaranteed a return no matter what price we pay. We both know those are foolish notions.
At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett referred to this as the St. Petersburg Paradox, based on a paper by David Durand. No investment has infinite value. So we have to be very careful using g > k for extended periods of time.
Should we throw DCF out the window?
An emphatic no! We just need to use it Foolishly. Here's what I recommend:
1. Be conservative.
Aggressive analyses can lead to inflated values and cause you to pay too much. Pay too much, just like incurring high transaction costs, and you get lower returns.
2. Think about your assumptions and gather contrasting viewpoints.
Poor assumptions based on viewpoints that are the same as yours can lead to aggressive analysis. And we know where that can lead.
3. Use a margin of safety.
Sorry. Despite the fact that you are conservative doesn't mean your answers are more accurate. Have the courage to pay significantly less than your estimate of value. Your family will thank you down the road.
At the Inside Value website, Philip Durell has a wonderful DCF calculator to help you with your analyses. Take a free trial of the newsletter for 30 days to access the tool and see how Philip is using it to value his recommendations. Not coincidentally, he is outperforming the market.
Fool contributor David Meier learned to be price-conscious from his wife. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.