A few thoughts on Free Cash Flow (and how easy it is to arbitrage this number)

For many Value Investors, “Free Cashflow” has become the most important “mantra” in order to decide if a stock is attractive or not. Especially in the area of technology stocks (Dell, Microsoft, Cisco, HP), the stated large free cashflows are or were the the major arguments from some investors why the invested in those stocks.

A few examples:

Dell: In February, David Einhorn disclosed a stake in DELL (which however he just sold again…), Katsenelson is a big fan of Xerox because of its large free cash flow and of course many many value investors love Cisco and Microsoft.

Let us quickly look at how Free Cashflow is defined (from investopedia):

Definition of ‘Free Cash Flow – FCF’
A measure of financial performance calculated as operating cash flow minus capital expenditures. Free cash flow (FCF) represents the cash that a company is able to generate after laying out the money required to maintain or expand its asset base. Free cash flow is important because it allows a company to pursue opportunities that enhance shareholder value. Without cash, it’s tough to develop new products, make acquisitions, pay dividends and reduce debt. FCF is calculated as:

EBIT(1-Tax Rate) + Depreciation & Amortization – Change in Net Working Capital – Capital Expenditure

It is important to notice that “Capital expenditure” only includes “direct” expenditure, like actually buying machinery etc.

Investopedia adds a pretty important point:

It is important to note that negative free cash flow is not bad in itself. If free cash flow is negative, it could be a sign that a company is making large investments. If these investments earn a high return, the strategy has the potential to pay off in the long

I think this is a point, many market pundits tend to ignore, but more on that later.

An even more important point is not mentioned in this definition: Free Cashflow does not include cash outflows for M&A activity

So let’s look at a simple example for a model company:

Base case:

EUR
EBIT (1-tax rate) 10
Depr 5
Change WC -1
Capex -3
   
   
Free Cashflow 11
   
   
Financing cashflow 0
 
 
Total cashflow 11

So our company shows a free cashflow of 11 EUR in this period and a similar total cashflow.

Case 1: Old School – Buying a new machine at year end with a loan for 15 EUR (I use year end in order not to “disturb” depreciation etc.)

We get the following result:

EUR
EBIT (1-tax rate) 10
Depr 5
Change WC -1
Capex -3
Machinery -15
 
Free Cashflow -4
 
Loan 15
Financing cashflow 15
 
 
Total cashflow 11

Aarrrg, negative free cashflow many investors would say, negative free cashflow, stay away from this stock !!!!

So a clever company might do one of the 2 following things:

Case 2: Classic FCF arbitrage: Operating leasing

In this case the company enters into an “Operating lease” contract at year end. The machine gets delivered as in a direct contract, but if the contract is structured correctly, neither capex nor loan show up in the balance sheet in that year (only the lease payments in subsequent periods)

EUR
EBIT (1-tax rate) 10
Depr 5
Change WC -1
Capex -3
Machinery 0
   
Free Cashflow 11
   
Loan 0
Financing cashflow 0
   
   
Total cashflow 11
 
Off balance sheet  
– machinery 15
– operating leasing liability -15

On a reported free cash flow basis, without adjustment, going forward, the company will look quite asset and capital efficient. However, this kind of FCF “arbitrage” will end under IFRS when operating leases will become “on balance”.

Case 3: M&A transaction

Now consider the following: For some unknown reason, one competitor is currently selling a subsidiary which only owns the brand new machine we wanted to buy and nothing else. The competitor is selling the company for the same price as the machine. Again we finance this through a loan.

The simplified CF statement looks the following:

EUR
EBIT (1-tax rate) 10
Depr 5
Change WC -1
Capex -3
Machinery 0
   
Free Cashflow 11
   
Acquisition -15
Loan 15
Financing cashflow 15
   
   
Total cashflow 11
   
Off balance sheet  
– machinery 0
– operating leasing liability 0

So “Heureka”, we have the machine on balance without impacting the Free cashflow and everyone is happy.

To be honest, this example is somehow unrealistic, but on the other hand this is exactly what is happening with many technology firms at the moment. Those companies show high free cashflow because they don’t spend a lot on investments but acquire new technologies vie M&A transactions.

If they would build this on their own, the cost would run negatively through free cashflow in contrast to the M&A expense.

There is a good post at Seeking Alpha which shows free cashflows over the last 5 years for 6 tech companies (RIMM, MSFT,DELL, NOK, AAPL, HPQ) without and including acquisitions.

For companies with a clearly declining core business like DELL and NOK, those M&A cash outs definitley have to be treated as mainenance Capex, but to be on the safe side, M&A for tech companies and pharmaceuticals should always be included in free cashflow.

This is exactly the reason why Jim Chanos has identified Hewlett Packard as the ulitmate Value Trap despite a trailing 25% FCF yield at current prices. HPQ acquisitions are not “growth investments” but “maintenance Capex” to counter their declining core business or to say it differently: The current reported “free cashflows” are more like liquidation cash flows.

Summary:

– Free cash flow can be a good indicator for the value of a company
– however one should be aware that there are many ways to “arbitrage” free cash flow
– I have only shown a few of them relating to investments but many others exist
– one should be especailly carefull to use FCF for companies which do a lot of acquisitions or use Operating leases extensively
– calculating free cash flow after acquisitions and changes in operating leases is a crude but good way to identify “problematic” companies
– some companies might be very good investments despite negative Free Cash Flows because they have good investment opportunities and finacne “conservatively”
– it will be interesting to see with what the financial industry will come up if Operating leases will come “on balance”. I have seen already attempts to structure leases as payables…..

6 comments

  • Very good article! I often hear the suggestion, to use free cashflow instead of earnings, when valuing a company, because “earnings can be manipulated that easily”. But as you wrote, it’s the same with free cashflow.
    I normally look at both, to form a realistic view about the company. Some things, you don’t discover when looking at earnings, you may discover easily by looking at free cashflow and vice versa.
    Buffetts owner earnings should be in fact the best measure to value a company. But you have to think, to estimate that number. You can’t just take it out of the annual report.
    Maybe thinking is the best thing to do when dealing with such issues. Simply putting some numbers into a formula, whether FCF, earnings or what else, does generally not lead to good results.

  • I ussually look if there are special effects in working capital. If you assume growth, you should this reflect by increased WC requirements which would reduce future FCF

  • Good post. What do you think about adding back changes in working capital to operating cashflows when calculating FCF?

  • very nice article.

    acquisitions as part of maintenance capex may also be interesting in pharma, where new patents (and R&D pipeline projects) are acquired.

    best
    tom

  • Imho the problem of FCF is that Capex is not equivalent to “the average annual amount of capitalized expenditures for plant and equipment, etc. that the business requires to fully maintain its long-term competitive position and its unit volume” [wikipedia] of Buffett’s owner earnings.

    An other example of missleading unadjusted FCF is telecom italia where FCF resulted from underinvestment and has to be used to deleverage instead of being paid out to shareholders.

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