cash flow

cash flow

Yesterday’s post probably contained more than you will ever need to know about depreciation.  Today’s topic is cash flow.  Tomorrow’s will be a discussion of whether cash flow or net profits is a better indicator to use in evaluating a stock.

four possible sources

What makes cash flow important is that it is a broader measure of a company’s ability to generate money from operations year after year than net profit is.  Professional investors normally consider four sources of funds in calculating cash flow. They are:

–net profit

–depreciation and amortization (which is essentially depreciation under another name)

–deferred taxes

–changes in working capital.

The four items should be found either in a company’s cash flow reconciliation statement or in the footnotes to the balance sheet.   In the US, all are contained in the “cash flows from operating activities” section of the cash flow statement.

I stick with two

Not everyone uses all four items.  There’s universal agreement (or as near as you can get in any human endeavor) that a cash flow calculation should include net profit + depreciation and amortization.  The question is whether to include the other two. And the issue is whether they provide a recurring source of cash.  My own opinion is, except in heavily government subsidized industries like mineral extraction where taxes always seem to be deferred, to exclude both deferred taxes and changed in working capital.

The worry about deferred taxes is that they arise from differences in the timing of when the tax expense is shown on the financial reports to shareholders and when the cash is ultimately paid to the tax authority.  So they often reverse themselves in relatively short order.

How can this happen?  One main reason is that governments often give companies a tax incentive to invest by allowing them to take rapid depreciation deductions.  In most countries (Japan is the only exception I can think of) financial reports use straight line depreciation, which slows and smooths the depreciation deduction.

An example:  For a $1000 item with a 5-year life and no salvage value, where government allows double declining balance depreciation, the yearly deprecation expense for taxes vs. for financial reporting looks like this:

tax     400     240     120     120     120

fin      200     200     200     200     200

Δ        200      40      (80)     (80)    (80).

Let’s assume (to keep things simple) that there are no other differences between the tax books and the financial reporting accounts.  If so, in year 1 the financial reporting accounts will deduct 200 from revenue for depreciation vs. 400 on the tax books.  Therefore, the report to shareholders will show pre-tax income that’s 200 higher than the tax books will show to the government.

What to do about the 200 in “phantom” income on the financial reporting books.  Not to worry, the financial reporting accountants will make a tax provision of 70 (assuming a 35% corporate tax rate) for the “extra” income.   They will label the 70 as deferred taxes and establish a balance sheet entry to hold the phantom tax payment.  They will also enter the 70 as a positive cash flow from operations on the consolidated cash flow statement, to show that the 70 hasn’t actually been paid to the tax authority.  (I’m not making this up.  This is what they do.  Don’t ask me why.)

In year 2, the procedure is similar to that of year 1, but the amount is 14.

In year 3, the depreciation deduction for financial reporting purposes is higher than that for the tax authority, so more actual taxes–an extra 28 per year–are paid.  Financial reporting accountants handle this by reversing their prior procedure–subtracting 28 in deferred taxes each year from the balance sheet, the tax entry on the income statement and the cash flow statement.

The details–bizarre as they are–aren’t so important.  The point to remember is that unless a company is continually investing, the deferred tax additions to cash flow will soon reverse themselves.  So they can’t be counted on as recurring sources of cash flow.

The other iffy item, in my view, is changes in working capital. There are negative working capital businesses.   Public utilities, restaurants, and hotels are examples.  Their customers pay for the companies’ products either in advance or very quickly after using them.  The companies, on the other hand, pay their suppliers only with a time lag, say, 30 days after delivery.  So such companies enjoy a “float” equal to perhaps 20 days worth of sales.  As long as sales are increasing, this “float” not only persists–it gets bigger!  The increase in payables minus receivables shows up on the cash flow statement as cash coming in from operations.  The amounts can be very large.

This isn’t exactly risk-free money, however. If sales begin to contract, so too will payables–meaning the company will have to return part of the float it has enjoyed from its suppliers.  And it better have the cash to be able to do so.  This is my reason for not counting working capital changes either.

(One other note about working capital, which I really consider a separate item for analysis.  There are firms whose market position is weak enough that their suppliers don’t give them much trade credit and they are also compelled to finance their customers’ purchases for long periods of time.  The worst I ever recall seeing was the Japanese sporting good company, Mizuno, which in the Eighties was giving its customers two years to pay.  In order for the company’s sales to grow, this trade financing–a use of corporate funds–had to grow as well.)

cash flow vs. free cash flow

Analysts often try to distinguish between (gross) cash flow as described above and (net or) free cash flow.  The latter is what’s left from profits + depreciation after all corporate calls on that cash have been satisfied.  These calls are generally:

–capital expenditure, i.e. reinvestment in maintaining and expanding plant and equipment

–working capital needs

–repayment of debt

–dividends to shareholders.

sounds good, but a somewhat nebulous concept

Although the concept of free cash flow is clear, arriving at a practical figure–especially when analyzing the company as an acquisition target–is a lot murkier than it might sound.  First of all, if you or I were acquiring a company, we probably wouldn’t pay dividends any more (we’d cancel our jet rentals and ride around on the corporate plane instead; we might have the company “invest” in a golf course in a resort area, too–and inspect it frequently).

We might think that the current owners’ capital spending plans were too aggressive or wasteful.  In either case, we could pare them back.  We might also think that the firm’s working capital management is very inefficient.  And we might feel we could refinance existing debt at a more favorable rate.

the unenviable case of utilities

However fuzzy the actual calculation may be,  we can probably best see what the distinction wants to highlight by considering a (highly simplified) public utility, like a local gas or electric distribution company.  Regulators in most countries grant such utilities a maximum allowable profit that’s calculated as a percentage of the utility’s net (meaning still undepreciated) plant and equipment.

Let’s say the allowable return is 5% and the net plant and equipment is 1000.  In the first year, the company is permitted to achieve a profit of 50.  During that year, the company records depreciation expense of 25.  Cash flow is therefore 75.

But starting out in year 2, absent any new building, the net plant is only 975.  Therefore the maximum allowable profit is 48.75–a fall of 2.5%.  In order to keep profits flat from year to year, the utility has to reinvest its depreciation to get the net plant back up to the prior year’s level.  To have, say, a 2.5% profit increase, the utility has to make its net plant grow by that amount–meaning it has to reinvest depreciation + another 25 (half its profit) back into the business.

This is the ultimate case of a company whose cash flow is not free.  Looking at the utility sections of stock services like Value Line, which calculate cash flow and price/cash flow ratios will show you what stunningly low multiples of cash flow pure utilities trade at.  The fact that most of the cash has to be plowed back into the business just to keep the ship afloat is the reason why.

That’s it for today.


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