What Is Discounted Cash Flow (DCF)?

Discounted cash flow (DCF) is a valuation method used to estimate the value of an investment based on its expected future cash flows. DCF analysis attempts to figure out the value of an investment today, based on projections of how much money it will generate in the future.

This applies to the decisions of investors in companies or securities, such as acquiring a company, investing in a technology startup, or buying a stock, and for business owners and managers looking to make capital budgeting or operating expenditures decisions such as opening a new factory or purchasing or leasing new equipment.

Key Takeaways

  • Discounted cash flow (DCF) helps determine the value of an investment based on its future cash flows.
  • The present value of expected future cash flows is arrived at by using a discount rate to calculate the DCF.
  • If the DCF is above the current cost of the investment, the opportunity could result in positive returns.
  • Companies typically use the weighted average cost of capital for the discount rate, because it takes into consideration the rate of return expected by shareholders.
  • The DCF has limitations, primarily in that it relies on estimations of future cash flows, which could prove inaccurate.
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Discounted Cash Flow (DCF)

How Discounted Cash Flow Works

The purpose of DCF analysis is to estimate the money an investor would receive from an investment, adjusted for the time value of money. The time value of money assumes that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow because it can be invested. As such, a DCF analysis is appropriate in any situation wherein a person is paying money in the present with expectations of receiving more money in the future.

For example, assuming a 5% annual interest rate, $1 in a savings account will be worth $1.05 in a year. Similarly, if a $1 payment is delayed for a year, its present value is 95 cents because you cannot transfer it to your savings account to earn interest.

DCF analysis finds the present value of expected future cash flows using a discount rate. Investors can use the concept of the present value of money to determine whether the future cash flows of an investment or project are equal to or greater than the value of the initial investment. If the value calculated through DCF is higher than the current cost of the investment, the opportunity should be considered.

In order to conduct a DCF analysis, an investor must make estimates about future cash flows and the ending value of the investment, equipment, or other asset. The investor must also determine an appropriate discount rate for the DCF model, which will vary depending on the project or investment under consideration, such as the company or investor's risk profile and the conditions of the capital markets. If the investor cannot access the future cash flows, or the project is very complex, DCF will not have much value and alternative models should be employed.

Discounted Cash Flow Formula

The formula for DCF is:

 D C F = C F 1 1 + r 1 + C F 2 1 + r 2 + C F n 1 + r n where: C F = The cash flow for the given year. C F 1  is for year one,  is for year two, C F 2 C F n  is for additional years \begin{aligned}&DCF=\frac{CF_1}{1+r}^1+\frac{CF_2}{1+r}^2+\frac{CF_n}{1+r}^n\\&\textbf{where:}\\&CF=\text{The cash flow for the given year.}\\&\qquad\quad\text{$CF_1$ is for year one, $CF_2$ is for year two,}\\&\qquad\quad\text{$CF_n$ is for additional years}\\&r=\text{The discount rate}\end{aligned} DCF=1+rCF11+1+rCF22+1+rCFnnwhere:CF=The cash flow for the given year.CF1 is for year one, CF2 is for year two,CFn is for additional years

Example of Discounted Cash Flow

When a company analyzes whether it should invest in a certain project or purchase new equipment, it usually uses its weighted average cost of capital (WACC) as the discount rate when evaluating the DCF. The WACC incorporates the average rate of return that shareholders in the firm are expecting for the given year.

For example, say you are looking to invest in a project, and your company's WACC is 5%, meaning you will use 5% as your discount rate. The initial investment is $11 million, and the project will last for five years, with the following estimated cash flows per year:

Cash Flow
Year Cash Flow
1 $1 million
2 $1 million
3 $4 million
4 $4 million
5 $6 million

Therefore, the discounted cash flows for the project are:

Discounted Cash Flow
Year Cash Flow Discounted Cash Flow (nearest $)
1 $1 million $952,381
2 $1 million $907,029
3 $4 million $3,455,350
4 $4 million $3,290,810
5 $6 million $4,701,157

If we add up all of the discounted cash flows, we get a value of $13,306,728. Subtracting the initial investment of $11 million, we get a net present value (NPV) of $2,306,728. Because this is a positive number, the cost of the investment today is worth it because the project will generate positive discounted cash flows above the initial cost. If the project had cost $14 million, the NPV would have been -$693,272, indicating that the cost of the investment would not be worth it.

Dividend discount models, such as the Gordon Growth Model (GGM) for valuing stocks, are examples of using discounted cash flows.

Disadvantages of Discounted Cash Flow

The main limitation of DCF is that it requires many assumptions. For one, an investor would have to correctly estimate the future cash flows from an investment or project. The future cash flows would rely on a variety of factors, such as market demand, the status of the economy, technology, competition, and unforeseen threats or opportunities.

Estimating future cash flows to be too high can result in choosing an investment that might not pay off in the future, hurting profits. Estimating cash flows to be too low, which would make an investment appear costly, could result in missed opportunities. Choosing a discount rate for the model is also an assumption and would have to be estimated correctly for the model to be worthwhile.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you calculate DCF?

Calculating the DCF of an investment involves three basic steps. First, you forecast the expected cash flows from the investment. Second, you select a discount rate, typically based on the cost of financing the investment or the opportunity cost presented by alternative investments. The third and final step is to discount the forecasted cash flows back to the present day, using a financial calculator, a spreadsheet, or a manual calculation.

What is an example of a DCF calculation?

To illustrate, suppose you have a discount rate of 10% and an investment opportunity that would produce $100 per year for the following three years. Your goal is to calculate the value today—in other words, the “present value”—of this stream of cash flows. Because money in the future is worth less than money today, you reduce the present value of each of these cash flows by your 10% discount rate.

Specifically, the first year’s cash flow is worth $90.91 today, the second year’s cash flow is worth $82.64 today, and the third year’s cash flow is worth $75.13 today. Adding up these three cash flows, you conclude that the DCF of the investment is $248.68.

Is DCF the same as net present value (NPV)?

No, DCF is not the same as NPV, although the two concepts are closely related. Essentially, NPV adds a fourth step to the DCF calculation process. After forecasting the expected cash flows, selecting a discount rate, and discounting those cash flows, NPV then deducts the upfront cost of the investment from the investment’s DCF. For instance, if the cost of purchasing the investment in our above example were $200, then the NPV of that investment would be $248.68 minus $200, or $48.68.