The enterprise value - or EV for short - is an indicator of how the market attributes value to a firm as a whole. Enterprise value is a term coined by analysts to discuss the aggregate value of a company as an enterprise rather than just focusing on its current market capitalization. It measures how much you need to fork out to buy an entire public company. When sizing up a company, investors get a clearer picture of real value with EV than with market capitalization.

Why doesn't market capitalization properly represent a firm's value? It leaves a lot of important factors out, such as a company's debt on the one hand and its cash reserves on the other. Enterprise value is basically a modification of market cap, as it incorporates debt and cash for determining a company's valuation.

The Calculation
Simply put, EV is the sum of a company's market cap and its net debt. To compute the EV, first calculate the company's market cap, add total debt (including long- and short-term debt reported in the balance sheet) and subtract cash and investments (also reported in the balance sheet).

Market capitalization is the share price multiplied by the number of outstanding shares. So, if a company has 10 shares and each currently sells for $25, the market capitalization is $250. This number tells you what you would have to pay to buy every share of the company. Therefore, rather than telling you the company's value, market cap simply represents the company's price tag.

The Role of Debt and Cash
Why are debt and cash considered when valuing a firm? If the firm is sold to a new owner, the buyer has to pay the equity value (in acquisitions, price is typically set higher than the market price) and must also repay the firm's debts. Of course, the buyer gets to keep the cash available with the firm, which is why cash needs to be deducted from the firm's price as represented by market cap.

Think of two companies that have equal market caps. One has no debt on its balance sheet while the other one is debt heavy. The debt-laden company will be making interest payments on the debt over the years. (Preferred stock and convertibles that pay interest should also be considered debt for the purposes of calculating value.) So, even though the two companies have equal market caps, the company with debt is worth more.

By the same token, imagine two companies with equal market caps of $250 and no debt. One has negligible cash and cash equivalents on hand, and the other has $250 in cash. If you bought the first company for $250, you will have a company worth, presumably, $250. But if you bought the second company for $500, it would have cost you just $250, since you instantly get $250 in cash.

If a company with a market cap of $250 carries $150 as long-term debt, an acquirer would ultimately pay a lot more than $250 if he or she were to buy the company's entire stock. The buyer has to assume $150 in debt, which brings the total acquisition price to $400. Long-term debt serves effectively to increase the value of a company, making any assessments that take only the stock into account preliminary at best.

Cash and short-term investments, by contrast, have the opposite effect. They decrease the effective price an acquirer has to pay. Let's say a company with a market cap of $25 has $5 cash in the bank. Although an acquirer would still need to fork out $25 to get the equity, it would immediately recoup $5 from the cash reserve, making the effective price only $20.

Ratio Matters
Frankly, knowing a company's EV alone is not all that useful. You can learn more about a company by comparing EV to a measure of the company's cash flow or EBIT. Comparative ratios demonstrate nicely how EV works better than market cap for assessing companies with differing debt or cash levels or, in other words, differing capital structures.

It is important to use EBIT - earnings before interest and tax - in the comparative ratio because EV assumes that, upon the acquisition of a company, its acquirer immediately pays debt and consumes cash, not accounting for interest costs or interest income. Even better is free cash flow, which helps avoid other accounting distortions.

For example, let's look at the price of two comparable stocks: Air Macklon and Cramer Airlines. At $45 per share, Macklon had a market cap of $13.5 billion and P/E (market cap/earnings) ratio of 10. But its balance sheet was burdened with nearly $30 billion in net debt. So Macklon's EV was $43.5 billion, or about 14 its $3.4 billion in EBIT.

By contrast, Air Cramer enjoyed a share price of $23 per share and a market cap of $6.1 billion and P/E ratio of 20, twice that of Air Macklon. But because Cramer owed a lot less - its net debt stood at $3.5 billion, its EV was $9.6 billion and its EV/EBIT ratio was only 10, compared to Macklon's EV/EBIT of 14.

By market cap (P/E) alone, Air Macklon looked like it was half the price of Cramer Airlines. But on the basis of EV, which takes into account important things like debt and cash levels, Cramer Airlines was priced much less per share. As the market gradually discovered, Cramer represented a better buy, offering more value for its price.

The Bottom Line
The value of EV lies in its ability to compare companies with different capital structures. By using enterprise value instead of market capitalization to look at the value of a company, investors get a more accurate sense of whether or not a company is truly undervalued.

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