What Is Free Cash Flow (FCF)?

Free cash flow (FCF) represents the cash a company generates after accounting for cash outflows to support operations and maintain its capital assets. Unlike earnings or net income, free cash flow is a measure of profitability that excludes the non-cash expenses of the income statement and includes spending on equipment and assets as well as changes in working capital from the balance sheet.

Interest payments are excluded from the generally accepted definition of free cash flow. Investment bankers and analysts who need to evaluate a company’s expected performance with different capital structures will use variations of free cash flow like free cash flow for the firm and free cash flow to equity, which are adjusted for interest payments and borrowings.

Similar to sales and earnings, free cash flow is often evaluated on a per share basis to evaluate the effect of dilution.

Key Takeaways

  • Free cash flow (FCF) represents the cash available for the company to repay creditors or pay dividends and interest to investors.
  • FCF reconciles net income by adjusting for non-cash expenses, changes in working capital, and capital expenditures (CAPEX).
  • However, as a supplemental tool for analysis, FCF can reveal problems in the fundamentals before they arise on the income statement.

Understanding Free Cash Flow

Understanding Free Cash Flow (FCF)

Free cash flow (FCF) is the cash flow available for the company to repay creditors or pay dividends and interest to investors. Some investors prefer to use FCF or FCF per share over earnings or earnings per share as a measure of profitability because these metrics remove non-cash items from the income statement. However, because FCF accounts for investments in property, plant, and equipment, it can be lumpy and uneven over time.

Benefits of Free Cash Flow (FCF)

Because FCF accounts for changes in working capital, it can provide important insights into the value of a company and the health of its fundamental trends. A decrease in accounts payable (outflow) could mean that vendors are requiring faster payment. A decrease in accounts receivable (inflow) could mean the company is collecting cash from its customers quicker. An increase in inventory (outflow) could indicate a building stockpile of unsold products. Including working capital in a measure of profitability provides an insight that is missing from the income statement.

For example, assume that a company had made $50,000,000 per year in net income each year for the last decade. On the surface, that seems stable but what if FCF has been dropping over the last two years as inventories were rising (outflow), customers started to delay payments (outflow) and vendors began demanding faster payments (outflow) from the firm? In this situation, FCF would reveal a serious financial weakness that wouldn’t have been apparent from an examination of the income statement alone.

FCF is also helpful as the starting place for potential shareholders or lenders to evaluate how likely the company will be able to pay their expected dividends or interest. If the company’s debt payments are deducted from FCFF (Free Cash Flow to the Firm), a lender would have a better idea of the quality of cash flows available for additional borrowings. Similarly, shareholders can use FCF minus interest payments to think about the expected stability of future dividend payments.

Limitations of Free Cash Flow (FCF)

Imagine a company has earnings before depreciation, amortization, interest, and taxes (EBITDA) of $1,000,000 in a given year. Also, assume that this company has had no changes in working capital (current assets – current liabilities) but they bought new equipment worth $800,000 at the end of the year. The expense of the new equipment will be spread out over time via depreciation on the income statement, which evens out the impact on earnings.

However, because FCF accounts for the cash spent on new equipment in the current year, the company will report $200,000 FCF ($1,000,000 EBITDA - $800,000 Equipment) on $1,000,000 of EBITDA that year. If we assume that everything else remains the same and there are no further equipment purchases, EBITDA and FCF will be equal again the next year. In this situation, an investor will have to determine why FCF dipped so quickly one year only to return to previous levels, and if that change is likely to continue.

Additionally, understanding the depreciation method being used will garner further insights. For example, net income and FCF will differ based on the amount of depreciation taken per year of the asset's useful life. If the asset is being depreciated using the book depreciation method, over a useful life of 10 years, then net income will be lower than FCF by $80,000 ($800,000 / 10 years) for each year until the asset is fully depreciated. Alternatively, if the asset is being depreciated using the tax depreciation method, the asset will be fully depreciated in the year it was purchased, resulting in net income equaling FCF in subsequent years.

Calculating Free Cash Flow (FCF)

FCF can be calculated by starting with Cash Flows from Operating Activities on the Statement of Cash Flows because this number will have already adjusted earnings for non-cash expenses and changes in working capital.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

The income statement and balance sheet can also be used to calculate FCF.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

Other factors from the income statement, balance sheet and statement of cash flows can be used to arrive at the same calculation. For example, if EBIT was not given, an investor could arrive at the correct calculation in the following way.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

While FCF is a useful tool, it is not subject to the same financial disclosure requirements as other line items in the financial statements. This is unfortunate because if you adjust for the fact that capital expenditures (CAPEX) can make the metric a little “lumpy,” FCF is a good double-check on a company’s reported profitability. Although the effort is worth it, not all investors have the background knowledge or are willing to dedicate the time to calculate the number manually.

How to Define “Good” Free Cash Flow (FCF)

Fortunately, most financial websites will provide a summary of FCF or a graph of FCF’s trend for most public companies. However, the real challenge remains: what constitutes good Free Cash Flow? Many companies with very positive Free Cash Flow also have dismal stock trends, and the opposite can also be true.

Using the trend of FCF can help you simplify your analysis.

One important concept from technical analysts is to focus on the trend over time of fundamental performance rather than the absolute values of FCF, earnings, or revenue. Essentially, if stock prices are a function of the underlying fundamentals, then a positive FCF trend should be correlated with positive stock price trends on average.

A common approach is to use the stability of FCF trends as a measure of risk. If the trend of FCF is stable over the last four to five years, then bullish trends in the stock are less likely to be disrupted in the future. However, falling FCF trends, especially FCF trends that are very different compared to earnings and sales trends, indicate a higher likelihood of negative price performance in the future.

This approach ignores the absolute value of FCF to focus on the slope of FCF and its relationship to price performance.

Example of Free Cash Flow (FCF)

Consider the following example:

Example of a Hypothetical Company's Free Cash Flow
 Factor 2017 2018 2019   2020   2021   TTM
 Sales/Revenue   $100   $105   $120   $126   $128 $130 
 EPS   $1.00   $1.03   $1.15   $1.17   $1.19   $1.20
 FCF/Share   $0.85   $0.97   $1.07   $1.05   $0.80   $0.56

In this example, there is a strong divergence between the company's revenue and earnings figures, and its cash flow. Based on these trends, an investor would be on alert that something may not be going well with the company, but that the issues haven’t made it to the so-called “headline numbers” – revenue and earnings per share (EPS). These issues can be attributed to several potential causes:

Investing in Growth

A company could have diverging trends like these because management is investing in property, plant, and equipment to grow the business. In the previous example, an investor could detect that this is the case by looking to see if CAPEX was growing in 2019-2021. If FCF + CAPEX were still upwardly trending, this scenario could be a good thing for the stock’s value.

Stockpiling Inventory

Low cash flows can also be a sign of poor inventory control. A company with strong sales and revenue could nonetheless experience diminished cash flows, if too many resources are tied up in storing unsold products. A cautious investor could examine these figures and conclude that the company may suffer from faltering demand or poor cash management.

Credit Problems

A change in working capital can be caused by inventory fluctuations or by a shift in accounts payable and receivable. If a company’s sales are struggling, so they extend more generous payment terms to their clients, accounts receivable will rise, which may account for a negative adjustment to FCF. Alternatively, perhaps a company’s suppliers are not willing to extend credit as generously and now require faster payment. That will reduce accounts payable, which is also a negative adjustment to FCF.

From 2009 through 2015 many solar companies were dealing with this exact kind of credit problem. Sales and income could be inflated by offering more generous terms to clients. However, because this issue was widely known in the industry, suppliers were less willing to extend terms and wanted to be paid by solar companies faster. In this situation, the divergence between the fundamental trends was apparent in FCF analysis but not immediately obvious by just examining the income statement alone.

How Is Free Cash Flow (FCF) Calculated?

There are two main approaches to calculating FCF. The first approach uses Cash Flow from Operating Activities as the starting point, and then makes adjustments for interest expense, the tax shield on interest expense, and any capital expenditures (CAPEX) undertaken that year. The second approach uses Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) as the starting point, then adjusts for income taxes, non-cash expenses such as depreciation and amortization, changes in working capital, and CAPEX. In both cases, the resulting numbers should be identical, but one approach may be preferred over the other depending on what financial information is available.

What Does FCF Indicate?

Free Cash Flow (FCF) indicates the amount of cash generated each year that is free and clear of all internal or external obligations. In other words, it reflects cash that the company can safely invest or distribute to shareholders. While a healthy FCF metric is generally seen as a positive sign by investors, it is important to understand the context behind the figure. For instance, a company might show high FCF because it is postponing important CAPEX investments, in which case the high FCF could actually present an early indication of problems in the future.

How Important Is FCF?

Free Cash Flow (FCF) is an important financial metric because it represents the actual amount of cash at a company’s disposal. A company with consistently low or negative FCF might be forced into costly rounds of fundraising in an effort to remain solvent. Similarly, if a company has enough FCF to maintain its current operations, but not enough FCF to invest in growing its business, that company might eventually fall behind its competitors. For yield-oriented investors, FCF is also important for understanding the sustainability of a company’s dividend payments, as well as the likelihood of a company raising their dividends in the future.