Putting DCF Into Action

A lesson on how to use the discounted cash flow (DCF) model like a pro

Morningstar.co.uk Editors 20 February, 2013 | 3:05PM
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This article is part of Morningstar.co.uk's Equity Investing Week. To learn more about the Discounted Cash Flow method, click here

This article will walk you through a step-by-step sample discounted cash flow (DCF) model that uses the "free cash flow to equity" method. Here are the main steps to generating a per share fair value estimate with this method:

Step 1. Project free cash flow for the forecast period.

Step 2. Determine a discount rate.

Step 3. Discount the projected free cash flows to the present, and sum.

Step 4. Calculate the perpetuity value and discount it to the present.

Step 5. Add the values from Steps 3 and 4, and divide the sum by shares outstanding.

Step 1: Project Free Cash Flow

The first step in projecting future cash flow is to understand the past. This means looking at historical data from the company's income statements, balance sheets, and cash-flow statements for at least the past four or five years.

Once you've examined the historical data and perhaps entered it into a spreadsheet, it's time to project the company's free cash flow in detail for the next couple of years. These projections are the meat of any DCF model. They will rely on your knowledge of the company and its competitive position, and how you expect things will change in the future. If you think profit margins will expand, or sales growth will slow dramatically, or the company needs to increase its capital expenditure to maintain its facilities, your projections should reflect those predictions.

Next, we need to estimate the company's "perpetuity year." This is the year at which we feel we can no longer adequately project future free cash flow. We also need to make a projection concerning what the company's free cash flow will be in that year.

To begin, let's suppose that the fictitious firm Charlie's Bicycles generated £500 million in free cash flow last year. Let's also assume that Charlie's current line-up of bikes are very hot sellers, and the company is expected to grow free cash flow 15% per year over the next five years. After five years, we assume competitors will have started copying Charlie's designs, eating into Charlie's growth. So after five years, free cash flow growth will slow down to 5% a year. Our free cash flow projection would look like this:

Last Year: £500.00

Year 1: 575.00

Year 2: 661.25

Year 3: 760.44

Year 4: 874.50

Year 5: 1005.68

Year 6: 1055.96

Year 7: 1108.76

Year 8: 1164.20

Year 9: 1222.41

Year 10: 1283.53

Step 2: Determine a Discount Rate

Because we're using the "free cash flow to equity" method of DCF, we can ignore Charlie's cost of debt and WACC in coming up with a discount rate. Instead, we'll focus on coming up with an assumed cost of equity.

Charlie's has been in business for more than 60 years, and it has not had an unprofitable year in decades. Its brand is well-known and respected, and this translates into very respectable returns on its invested capital. Given this and the relatively stable outlook for Charlie's profits, settling for a 9% cost of equity (lower than average) seems appropriate given the modest risks Charlie's faces.

Step 3: Discount Projected Free Cash Flows to Present

The next step is to discount each of the individual year's cash flows to express them in terms of today's pounds. Remember we are using the following formula, and the "discount factor" just represents the denominator in the equation. We can then multiply each year's cash flow by the discount factor to get the present value of each cash flow.

Present Value of Cash Flow in Year N = CF at Year N / (1 + R)^N

CF = Cash Flow

R = Required Return (Discount Rate), in this case 9%

N = Number of Years in the Future

Last Year: £500.00

Year 1: 575.00 x (1 / 1.09^1) = 528

Year 2: 661.25 x (1 / 1.09^2) = 557

Year 3: 760.44 x (1 / 1.09^3) = 587

Year 4: 874.50 x (1 / 1.09^4) = 620

Year 5: 1005.68 x (1 / 1.09^5) = 654

Year 6: 1055.96 x (1 / 1.09^6) = 630

Year 7: 1108.76 x (1 / 1.09^7) = 607

Year 8: 1164.20 x (1 / 1.09^8) = 584

Year 9: 1222.41 x (1 / 1.09^9) = 563

Year 10: 1283.53 x (1 / 1.09^10) = 542

We then add up all the discounted cash flows from Years 1 through 10, and come up with a value of £5,870 million (£5.87 billion).

Step 4: Calculate Discounted Perpetuity Value

In this step, we use another formula:

Perpetuity Value = ( CFn x (1+ g) ) / (R - g)

CFn = Cash Flow in the Last Individual Year Estimated, in this case Year 10 cash flow

g = Long-Term Growth Rate

R = Discount Rate, or Cost of Capital, in this case cost of equity

Morningstar analysts generally use 3% as the perpetuity growth rate, which was--until recently--fairly close to the historical average growth rate of the economy. For the sake of this example, we'll assume that after 10 years, Charlie's Bicycles will also grow at this 3% rate. Plugging the numbers into the formula:

( £1,284 x (1 + .03) ) / (.09 - .03) = £22,042 million

Notice that for the cash flow figure we used the undiscounted Year 10 cash flow, not the discounted £542 million. But because we used the undiscounted amount, we still need to express the perpetuity value in present-value terms using this trusty formula:

Present Value of Cash Flow in Year N = CF at Year N / (1 + R)^N

Present Value of Perpetuity Value = £22,042 million / (1 + .09)^10 = £9,311 million

Step 5: Add It All Up

Now that we have the value of all the cash flows from Year 1 through 10 as well as those from Year 11 on, we add up these two values:

Discounted Free Cash Flow, Years 1-10: £5,870 million

+ Discounted Free Cash Flow, Years 11 on: £9,311 million

= £15,181 million.

So there we have it! We have estimated Charlie's Bicycles to be worth £15.2 billion. The final, simple step is to divide this £15.2 billion value by the number of shares Charlie's Bicycles has outstanding. If Charlie's has 100 million shares outstanding, then our estimate of Charlie's intrinsic value is £152 per share.

If Charlie's stock is trading at £100 per share, you should start to get interested in buying the shares. We can forget about what Charlie's P/E ratio is relative to its peers as well as the latest comments from City analysts. The bottom line is the stock is trading below its estimated intrinsic value. If you have confidence in your free cash flow projections, you can have an equal amount of confidence in buying the stock.

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind, this is merely a simple example of how to use a DCF model, but it's still not exactly "simple." Not many people put this much work into their investments. But if you're willing to go through the effort of creating a DCF model for a company you are interested in, you will be much more informed and confident than the vast majority of other investors.

There are numerous small twists that the other type of DCF model (cash flow to the firm) uses, but the output should be approximately the same no matter which DCF method you use for a given firm. Also keep in mind that a model does not need to be super-complex to get you most of the way there and help you clarify your thinking. Remember, using a similar DCF model can take you a long way in finding superior companies trading at a discount to their intrinsic value--the key to a profitable long-term investment strategy.

The original version of this article was published January 2010.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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