While net present value (NPV) calculations are useful when valuing investment opportunities, the process is by no means perfect. Thus, NPV is a useful starting point to value investments, but certainly not a definitive answer that an investor can rely on for all investment decisions.

NVP and Investing

In some instances, money in the present is worth more than the same amount of money in the future. That's due to inflation and earnings from alternative investments that could be made during the period. In other words, it's possible that a dollar earned in the future won’t be worth as much as one earned in the present. The discount rate element of the NPV formula is a way to account for this because it subtracts today's value of invested cash from today's value of the expected cash flows.

For example, an investor could receive $100 today or a year from now. Most investors would not be willing to postpone payment. However, what if an investor could choose to receive $100 today or $105 in one year? The 5% rate of return for waiting one year might be worth it for an investor, unless there was an alternative investment that could yield a rate greater than 5% over the same period.

If an investor knew they could earn 8% from a relatively safe investment over the next year, they would want $100 today and not opt to invest in the 5% investment. In this case, the 8% is called the discount rate.

NPV and Discount Rate Sensitivity

The biggest disadvantage to the calculation of NPV is its sensitivity to discount rates. After all, NPV is a summation of multiple discounted cash flows—both positive and negative—converted into present value terms for the same point in time (usually when the cash flows begin). As such, the discount rate used in the denominators of each present value (PV) calculation is critical in determining what the final NPV number will turn out to be. A small increase or decrease in the discount rate will have a considerable effect on the final output.

Let's say you're trying to value an investment that would cost you $4,000 upfront today but is expected to pay you $1,000 in annual profits for five years (for a total nominal amount of $5,000) beginning at the end of this year. If you use a 5% discount rate in your NPV calculation, your five $1,000 payments are equal to $4,329.48 of today's dollars. Subtracting the $4,000 initial payment, you are left with an NPV of $329.28.

However, if you raise the discount rate from 5% to 10%, you get a very different NPV result. At a 10% discount rate, your investment's cash flows add up to a present value of $3,790.79. Subtract the $4,000 initial cost from this amount, and you're left with a NPV of -$209.21. Simply by adjusting the rate, you have gone from having an investment that creates value to having one that loses value instead.

How do you know which discount rate to use? Accurately pegging a percentage number to an investment to represent its risk premium is hardly an exact science. If the investment is very safe, with low risk of loss, 5% may be a reasonable discount rate to use—but what if the investment harbors enough risk to warrant a 10% discount rate? Since NPV calculations require a discount rate, there is no way to get around this issue. Therefore, it's a big disadvantage to the NPV methodology.

Other Disadvantages

Making matters even more complex is the possibility that your investment won't have the same level of risk throughout its entire time horizon.

In our example of a five-year investment, how would you handle a situation in which the investment had a high risk of loss for the first year but relatively low risk for the last four? You can try to use different discount rates for each time period, but this will make your model even more complex and require a lot on your part to peg not only one discount rate accurately, but five.

Finally, another major disadvantage to using NPV as an investment criterion is that it wholly excludes the value of any real options that may exist within the investment.

Consider our five-year investment example again. Suppose this is a startup technology company, which is currently losing money but is expected to have the opportunity to expand greatly within three years. If you know the company has this valuable real option of expansion in the future, shouldn't you incorporate the value of that option into the total NPV of the investment? Clearly, the answer is "yes," but the standard NPV formula provides no way to include the value of real options.