Discounted Cash Flow

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Converting future earnings to today's money. Explanation Discounted Cash Flow.

Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) is, what amount someone is willing to pay today, in order to receive the anticipated cash flow of future years. The DCF method converts future earnings to today's money. The future cash flows must be recalculated (discounted) to represent their present values. In this way the value of a company or project under consideration as a whole is determined properly.

Discounted Cash Flow calculation

The DCF for an investment is calculated by estimating: the cash that you will have to pay out, and the cash which you expect to receive back. The timeframes that you expect to receive the payments must also be estimated. Each cash transaction must then be recalculated, by subtracting the opportunity cost of capital between now and the moment when you will pay or receive the cash.

DCF example

For example, if inflation is 6%, the value of your money would halve every ±12 years. If you expect that a particular asset will provide you an income of $30.000 in 12 years from now, that income stream would be worth $15.000 today if inflation was 6% for the period. We have now discounted the cash flow of $30.000: it is only worth $15.000 for you at this moment.

Why Discounted Cash Flow?

The DCF method is an approach for valuation, whereby projected future cashflows are discounted at an interest rate (also called: Rate of Return), that reflects the perceived amount of risk of the cash flows. In fact, the discount rate reflects two things:

  1. The time value of money. Any investor would prefer to have cash immediately than having to wait. Therefore investors must be compensated by paying for the delay.
  2. A risk premium that represents the extra return which investors demand, because they want compensation for the risk that the cash flow might not materialize.

History of DCF

Discounted Cash Flow was first formally articulated in 1938 in a text by John Burr Williams: 'The Theory of Investment Value'. This was after the market crash of 1929 and before auditing and public accounting were mandated by the SEC. Understandably, as a result of the crash, investors were wary of relying on reported earnings, or in fact any measures of value apart from cash. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the value of cash and physical assets gradually became less well correlated with the total value of the company (as determined by the stock market). According to some estimates, tangible assets dropped towards less than one-fifth of the total corporate value. Intangible assets, such as customer relationships, patents, proprietary business models, channels, etc., are the remaining four-fifths.

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