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Capital Ideas: Back to the Future of Valuation

The inventor of a new valuation model claims to have a roadmap for value creation that includes signposts on how to set, track, and meet growth goals.
Marie Leone, | US
April 7, 2005

Tucked into chapter nine of a new book about business valuation is a future-value equation — a methodology to show the fair-market value (FMV) of a business as of a future date. I point this out for two reasons, neither being my love of advanced algebra.

First, the equation, which is found in the recently published Value Your Business and Increase Its Potential (McGraw-Hill Companies), isn't simply descriptive (the company is found to be worth $100 million). Rather, it can be used as a management tool to bridge the gap between valuation mathematics and management know-how.

Further, using the tool can force managers to think differently about value creation. Indeed, the equation comprises all the key elements of a company's financial statements and mathematically relates them to one another. That interplay means managers can set future growth targets and then measure the progress of meeting or missing those marks.

But to the uninitiated, none of that is apparent at first glance.

To be sure, the meanings of some of the finance terms are easily decoded: Inc, income; g, growth rate; Cap Expend, capital expenditures; Depr, depreciation; Incr NWC, increase in net working capital; and r, discount rate. But I wanted to decipher what's unique, and useful, about the equation, so I asked its inventor, valuation guru Jay Abrams, president of Abrams Valuation Group in North Hollywood, California, as well as other specialists.

In a nutshell, the formula is about the future, although it's more Miller and Modigliani than H.G. Wells. Traditional valuation methods, by contrast, focus on net present value (NPV), which useful for valuing a company for purposes of a merger, tax work, or litigation but doesn't help executives create future value.

The future-value equation is consistent with the economic theories of Nobel laureates Merton Miller and Franco Modigliani, as laid out in their 1961 treatise "Dividend Policy, Growth, and the Valuation of Shares," notes David Kleinman, a valuation expert and management professor at the University of Chicago. Specifically, says Kleinman, the treatise concludes that a company's value is tied to a trio of metrics: cost of capital, growth rate, and rate-of-return on invested capital.

Abrams's equation incorporates those metrics, along with other key elements of a company's financial statements: the past year's income, growth in cash flow, profit margin, and retention ratio (the part of net income not paid out as dividends).

With his equation, Abrams aims to paint a picture for managers about what they can do today to affect the value of their company many years from now. For example, consider the cash-flow section of the equation (which is set apart from the rest of the calculation by brackets.) This portion represents a way to calculate a company's retention ratio, which is the percentage of net income that a company must retain to spur growth.

The retention ratio, explains Abrams, is tied to the company's growth rate and payout ratio (the percentage of net income that the company pays in dividends). When the growth rate increases, so does the retention ratio, which decreases the payout ratio. The equation thus shows that as the growth rate accelerates, the payout rate to shareholders drops.

The point, says Abrams, is that the combined effect of all the variables in the equation is what matters. The payout-ratio scenario illustrates that just growing sales as fast as possible doesn't always ensure an increase in shareholder value.

A credit-policy decision is another example of how the equation can help set and track future goals. Say that a CFO gives customers two credit-term options: one to pay within 10 days, which comes with a 2 percent discount; the other to pay in full after 30 days. The 10-day term effectively costs the company interest expense, but it also accelerates the payment of a percentage of its accounts receivable (A/R).

Lower A/R translates into a lower retention ratio and higher payout ratio. Thus, by plugging appropriate variables into the equation for, say, a 10-year calculation, the equation will show that maintaining a lower level of A/R now will likely produce a higher payout for shareholders in 2015.

If that's management goal, then the variables should be updated and monitored to make sure managers keep A/R at suitable levels.

The tail end of the equation — the ratio immediately following the last multiplication sign — is about managing risk. It represents the discount rate in some future year and the long-term growth rate associated with that point in time. An important idea that managers can glean from the equation is that whatever action senior executives take to reduce risk should not, on balance, restrict growth, Abrams says.

In the right side of the equation "we cross the border from pure valuation to management," says Abrams. The valuation expert used Miller and Modigliani's basic science as a foundation, then extended the mathematics to make the formula relevant to management. For his part, Abrams likes to encourage managers to use his equation as a compass to plot a course and check if they are headed due North as the future unfolds.

Abrams explains that the equation is about achieving balance. Ideally, a business should grow profitably — and as fast as possible — without unduly straining cash flow. That, however, is a neat trick, even if a company has the in-house talent to manage the strain that accompanies rapid growth, he adds.

Still, having a formula alone doesn't assure success, reckons management consultant Linda Feinholz. The reason is mainly that executives often balk at making needed operational or organizational changes when a project is focused on growth that is five or ten years in the future — and especially when the decision comes down from on high.

To get managers to buy in to such changes, according to Karen Spaun, CFO of $270 million Meadowbrook Insurance Group in Southfield, Michigan, it's easier for focus on value creation as a team sport. That strategy may have taken root while Spaun was a Division I swimmer for the University of Ohio, but it's a management philosophy that serves her well.

Although Spaun hasn't used Abrams's methodology because she is not familiar with it, she agrees with its premise that management needs to take an active role in monitoring growth goals and adjust business decisions to stay on track. To that end, Spaun uses homegrown budget and forecasting models to figure out how management's actions affect shareholder value.

Her models include balance-sheet totals, return on equity, and cost of capital, which get manipulated with "if/then statements," says the finance chief. For instance, says Spaun, "what would happen to our capital expenditure outlays or return on capital if we expand our fee-based business?"

Spaun's Excel-based models are used by all of Meadowbrook's department managers, who test out growth strategies and tactics before presenting them to the management team. She says the models go a long way to boost communication between operations and the finance department.

Indeed, the mathematics falls short without the human touch, says Abrams: "What matters is that management understands the value consequences of its actions."

Marie Leone's "Capital Ideas" column appears every other Thursday. Contact her at

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