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Free cash flow

Категорія — Фінансова звітність
By Konstantin Vasilev Member of the Board of Directors of Cbonds, Ph.D. in Economics
Updated September 11, 2023

What is meant by free cash flow?

Free cash flow (FCF) embodies the cash that a company generates once it has accounted for the cash outflows necessary to sustain its operations and uphold its capital assets. Unlike earnings or net income, free cash flow is a profitability metric that disregards non-cash expenses from the income statement while encompassing expenditures on equipment, assets, and alterations in working capital from the balance sheet.

It’s important to note that the conventional definition of free cash flow does not include interest payments.1

For investment bankers and analysts tasked with appraising a company’s anticipated performance under different capital structures, modified versions of free cash flow come into play. Examples include free cash flow for the firm and free cash flow to equity, both of which consider interest payments and borrowings in their adjustments.

Free cash flow

How free cash flow works

Free cash flow (FCF) functions as a critical financial metric that provides insights into a company’s financial health, operational efficiency, and potential for growth. It showcases the amount of cash a company generates from its operations after accounting for necessary expenditures to maintain and expand its business. FCF is calculated by subtracting capital expenditures (CAPEX), working capital adjustments, and taxes from the company’s operating cash flow. This calculation comprehensively shows the company’s ability to generate and manage cash over a given period.

The mechanics of FCF illustrate how efficiently a company transforms its revenue into actual cash that can be used for various purposes. Positive free cash flow indicates that a company has generated more cash than it has spent on both maintaining its operations and investing in future growth. This surplus cash can be used for initiatives such as reinvesting in the business, paying dividends to shareholders, reducing debt, pursuing acquisitions, or weathering economic downturns. Conversely, if FCF is negative, it implies that the company’s operational cash inflows are insufficient to cover its operating costs and investments, possibly necessitating external funding or strategic adjustments. Investors and financial analysts can gauge a company’s financial stability, growth prospects, and overall strategic direction by analyzing FCF over multiple periods and comparing it to industry peers.

What does the company’s free cash flow indicate?

Increasing free cash flows often foreshadow a rise in earnings. Companies that witness a surge in FCF, attributed to factors like revenue expansion, enhanced efficiency, cost minimization, share buybacks, dividend issuance, or debt reduction, possess the ability to gratify investors in the future. This is why the investment community highly regards FCF as a value metric. When a company’s stock price is low and its free cash flow is on an upward trajectory, there is a favorable likelihood of impending earnings and share value growth.

On the contrary, diminishing FCF indicates impending challenges. In the absence of substantial free cash flow, companies struggle to sustain the growth of their earnings. Inadequate FCF for earnings expansion can compel a company to escalate its indebtedness. What’s even more concerning, a company lacking sufficient FCF might not have the financial liquidity required to remain operational.

Features of free cash flow

Benefits

By encompassing shifts in working capital, FCF holds the capacity to offer pivotal insights into a company’s valuation and the state of its foundational trends.

A reduction in accounts payable (outflow) might signify that suppliers are insisting on swifter payments. Conversely, a decline in accounts receivable (inflow) could indicate that the company is accelerating its cash collection from customers. An escalation in inventory (outflow) might suggest an accumulation of unsold products. Integrating working capital within a profitability metric imparts a perspective that remains absent from the income statement.

To illustrate, suppose a company consistently generated $50,000,000 in net income annually over the past decade. On the surface, this stability appears intact. However, what if FCF exhibited a decline over the last two years due to surging inventories (outflow), extended customer payment timelines (inflow), and heightened supplier payment demands (outflow)? In such a scenario, FCF would unveil a notable financial vulnerability that might elude detection through an income statement review alone.

Additionally, scrutinizing FCF proves advantageous for prospective shareholders or lenders seeking to gauge the likelihood of the company fulfilling anticipated dividends or interest payments. By deducting the company’s debt obligations from free cash flow to the firm (FCFF), lenders can glean a more accurate understanding of the cash flow quality available for servicing additional debt. Shareholders can employ FCF minus interest payments to anticipate the stability of forthcoming dividend disbursements.

Pitfalls

Despite its provision of a treasure trove of valuable insights that investors genuinely value, FCF is not without its flaws. Astute companies still possess room to maneuver through accounting tactics. In the absence of a standardized regulatory framework for determining FCF, discord often arises among investors regarding the precise classification of items as capital expenditures or not.

Consequently, investors must remain vigilant regarding firms exhibiting substantial FCF levels to ascertain whether these entities might be downplaying capital expenditures or expenses related to research and development. Companies can also transiently augment FCF by elongating payment schedules, enforcing stricter payment collection protocols, and depleting inventories. These actions curtail existing obligations and alter working capital dynamics, albeit their effects tend to be ephemeral.

Limitations

Consider a scenario where a company achieves earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) amounting to $1,000,000 within a particular year. Let’s also presume that the company maintains a stable working capital (current assets - current liabilities), but it invests $800,000 in new equipment at the year’s end. The expense of this equipment will be distributed over time via depreciation on the income statement, effectively evening out its impact on earnings.

However, FCF takes into account the actual cash outlay for the new equipment within the current year. Consequently, the company will report a $200,000 FCF figure ($1,000,000 EBITDA - $800,000 equipment) alongside $1,000,000 EBITDA for that year. Assuming all other factors remain constant and no additional equipment purchases occur, EBITDA and FCF will align once again in the subsequent year.

In this context, an investor would need to ascertain the reason behind the sudden dip in FCF during a single year, only to observe a return to prior levels and further evaluate the likelihood of this trend persisting.

Furthermore, delving into the depreciation method employed brings forth additional insights. For instance, net income cash and FCF will diverge based on the annual depreciation amount for the asset’s useful life. If the asset undergoes book depreciation spanning a useful life of 10 years, net income will be $80,000 lower than FCF annually ($800,000 / 10 years) until the asset is fully depreciated.

Alternatively, if the asset is subject to tax depreciation, it will be completely depreciated in the year of purchase, aligning net income with FCF in the subsequent years.

How to calculate free cash flow?

Calculating FCF involves utilizing information from both the cash flow statement and the balance sheet. Within these documents, the "cash flow from operations" item, often referred to as "operating cash," is crucial. The FCF calculation is achieved by subtracting estimated capital expenditures necessary for ongoing operations:

FCF = CFO - Capital Expenditures Where: CFO = Cash flow from operations

Alternatively, another method to compute FCF involves referencing the income statement and the balance sheet. This approach commences with net income and subsequently incorporates adjustments such as adding back depreciation and amortization charges. An additional refinement considers changes in working capital, achieved by deducting current liabilities from current assets. The final step is to subtract capital expenditures. This free cash flow formula formula is as follows:

FCF = Net Income + DA - CC - Capital Expenditures Where: DA = Depreciation and amortization CC = Changes in working capital

The seemingly counterintuitive step of adding back depreciation and amortization is rationalized by the fact that FCF is intended to assess present spending rather than transactions from the past. This adjustment makes FCF a valuable tool for identifying growing companies with substantial upfront costs, which may temporarily impact earnings but hold the potential for future returns.

What does good free cash flow mean?

Fortunately, most financial platforms offer a concise overview of FCF or a visual representation of its historical trajectory for the majority of publicly traded companies.

Yet, the central challenge remains: What signifies commendable free cash flow? It’s worth noting that numerous companies boasting robust FCF figures might exhibit lackluster stock trends, and conversely, the reverse scenario can also hold true.

Leveraging the FCF trend can streamline your analysis process.

A pivotal insight from technical analysts underscores prioritizing the temporal trend of fundamental performance over the sheer numerical values of FCF, earnings, or revenue. If stock prices are intrinsically linked to the underlying fundamentals, then a positive FCF trend should generally align with positive stock price trends.

A widely adopted strategy involves utilizing the consistency of FCF trends as an indicator of risk. When the FCF trend demonstrates stability over the preceding four to five years, optimistic trends in the stock are less prone to future disruptions. Conversely, declining FCF trends, particularly those diverging significantly from earnings and sales trends, signal an elevated probability of negative price performance down the line.

This methodology sidelines the absolute FCF value in favor of focusing on the trajectory of FCF and its interplay with price performance.

What is free cash flow to the firm?

Free Cash Flow to the Firm (FCFF) embodies a crucial financial metric that holds significant implications for a company’s stock valuation and performance evaluation. The valuation of a company’s stock is often perceived as the aggregation of its projected future cash flows, underscoring the paramount importance of FCFF. This calculation accounts for all stakeholders, encompassing both bondholders and stockholders when determining the residual funds accessible to investors.

The calculation of FCFF serves as an evaluative tool for comprehending a company’s operations and overall performance. FCFF comprehensively considers all cash inflows in the form of revenues, offsets them against cash outflows like regular expenses, and encompasses the reinvested cash aimed at expanding the business. The outcome is the remaining funds available to the company, denoted as its FCFF.

Moreover, FCFF serves as a litmus test for the equitable valuation of stocks. It empowers investors to gauge whether a stock is priced reasonably, given that a stock’s value is intimately tied to anticipated future cash flows. Additionally, FCFF offers insights into a company’s capacity to distribute dividends, execute share repurchases, or meet obligations to debt holders. Any prospective investor contemplating an investment in a company’s corporate bonds or public equity should duly scrutinize its FCFF.

A positive FCFF value indicates that the company has residual cash after fulfilling its expenditures, while a negative value suggests that the company’s revenue falls short of covering costs and investment undertakings. In instances of negative FCFF, it becomes imperative for an investor to delve deeper into the underlying reasons behind the disbalance between expenses, investments, and revenues. This disparity could be a strategic decision aligned with high-growth objectives, as observed in technology firms that consistently attract external investments. Conversely, it might also signify underlying financial challenges that warrant further investigation.

Free cash flow vs. operating cash flow

Free cash flow and operating cash flow have distinct meanings and applications in the realm of business analysis:

Free cash flow denotes the cash a company generates through its regular business operations prior to interest payments while also subtracting expenditures allocated to capital investments. These investments, known as capital expenditures (CAPEX), pertain to long-term acquisitions of fixed assets like property, plant, and equipment.

Conversely, operating cash flow encompasses the cash derived from a company’s routine business activities. It indicates whether a company generates sufficient positive cash flow to sustain its operations and facilitate expansion.

Both free cash flow and operating cash flow frequently serve as metrics for comparing companies within the same industry or similar sectors. When evaluating a company for potential investment, operating cash flow, free cash flow, and earnings collectively play pivotal roles in the research and assessment process.

Levered vs. unlevered free cash flow

The term "Free Cash Flow" can encompass both Unlevered Free Cash Flow (also known as Free Cash Flow to the Firm) and Levered Free Cash Flow (also referred to as Free Cash Flow to Equity). These two variations provide distinct insights into a company’s financial dynamics.

The primary differentiation between conventional Free Cash Flow and Unlevered Free Cash Flow lies in the inclusion of interest expense. Regular Free Cash Flow incorporates the company’s interest expenses, whereas the unlevered version excludes interest expenses and approximates the tax impact without such expenses.

Levered Free Cash Flow represents the cash amount remaining after a business has satisfied its financial commitments. On the other hand, Unlevered Free Cash Flow represents the funds available to the business before addressing its financial commitments. Examples of these financial commitments include operating expenses and interest payments, which are funded from levered free cash flow.

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