Free cash flow is the cash that flows through a company in the course of a quarter or a year once all cash expenses have been taken out. Free cash flow represents the actual amount of cash that a company has left from its operations that could be used to pursue opportunities that enhance shareholder value - for example, developing new products, paying dividends to investors or doing share buybacks. (To learn more, see Free Cash Flow: Free, But Not Always Easy.)
Calculating Free Cash Flow
We work out free cash flow by looking at what's left over from revenues after deducting operating costs, taxes, net investment and the working capital requirements (see Figure 1). Depreciation and amortization are not included since they are non-cash charges. (For more information, see Understanding The Income Statement.)
Figure 1 - How free cash flow is calculated
In the previous chapter, we forecasted The Widget Company's revenues over the next five years. Here we show you how to project the other items in our calculation over that period.
Future Operating Costs
When doing business, a company incurs expenses - such as salaries, cost of goods sold (CoGS), selling and general administrative expenses (SGA), and research and development (R&D). These are the company's operating costs. If current operating costs are not explicitly stated on a company's income statement, you can calculate them by subtracting net operating profits - or earnings before interest and taxation (EBIT) - from total revenues.
A good place to start when forecasting operating costs is to look at the company's historic operating cost margins. The operating margin is operating costs expressed as a proportion of revenues.
For three years running, The Widget Company has generated an average operating cost margin of 70%. In other words, for every $1 of revenue, the company incurs $0.70 in operating costs. Management says that its cost cutting program will push those margins down to 60% of revenues over the next five years.
However, as analysts and investors, we should be concerned that competing widget factories might be built, thus squeezing The Widget Company's profitability. Therefore, as we did when forecasting revenues, we will err on the side of conservatism and assume that operating costs will show an increase as a percentage of revenues as the company is forced to lower its prices to stay competitive over time. Let's say operating costs will hold at 65% of revenues over the first three projected years, but will increase to 70% in Year 4 and Year 5 (see Figure 2).
Many companies do not actually pay the official corporate tax rate on their operating profits. For instance, companies with high capital expenditures receive tax breaks. So, it makes sense to calculate the tax rate by taking the average annual income tax paid over the past few years divided by profits before income tax. This information is available on the company's historic income statements.
Let's assume that for each of the past three years, The Widget Company paid 30% income tax. We will project that the company will continue to pay that 30% tax rate over the next five years (see Figure 2).
To underpin growth, companies need to keep investing in capital items such as property, plants and equipment. You can calculate net investment by taking capital expenditure, disclosed in a company's statement of cash flows, and subtracting non-cash depreciation charges, found on the income statement.
Let's say The Widget Company spent $10 million last year on capital expenditures, with depreciation of $3 million, giving net investment of $7 million, or 7% of total revenues (see Figure 2). But in the two prior years, the company's net investment was much higher: 10% of revenues.
If competition does intensify in the widget industry, The Widget Company will almost certainly have to boost capital investment to stay ahead. So, we will assume that net investment will steadily return to its normal level of 10% of sales over the next five years, as seen in Figure 2: 7.6% of sales in Year 1, 8.2% in Year 2, 8.8% in Year 3, 9.4% in Year 4 and 10% in Year 5.
Figure 2 - Forecasting The Widget Company\'s operating costs, taxes, net investment and change in working capital over the five-year forecast period
Change in Working Capital
Working capital refers to the cash a business requires for day-to-day operations, or, more specifically, short-term financing to maintain current assets such as inventory. The faster a business expands, the more cash it will need for working capital and investment.
Working capital is calculated as current assets minus current liabilities. These items are found on the company's balance sheet, published in its quarterly and annual financial statements. At year end, The Widget Company's balance sheet showed current assets of $25 million and current liabilities of $16 million, giving net working capital of $9 million.
Net change in working capital is the difference in working capital levels from one year to the next. When more cash is tied up in working capital than the previous year, the increase in working capital is treated as a cost against free cash flow.
Working capital typically increases as sales revenues grow, so a bigger investment of inventory and receivables will be needed to match The Widget Company's revenue growth. In our forecast, we will assume that changes in working capital are proportional to revenue growth. In other words, if revenues grow by 20% in the first year, working capital requirements will grow by 20% in the first year, from $9 million to $10.8 million (see Figure 2). Meanwhile, we will keep a close watch for any signs of a changing trend.
Figure 3 - Free cash flow forecast calculation for The Widget Company
As you can see in Figure 3, we've determined our estimated free cash flow for our forecast period. Now we are one step closer to finding a value for the company. In the next section of the tutorial, we will estimate the value at which we will discount the free cash flows.
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