Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A Critical Idea in Valuing Stocks Is Being Made Obsolete by Low Rates

'DCF' and low interest rates don't mix, says Sanford Bernstein.

Years of ultra-low borrowing costs means that many governments — and even corporates — are no longer paying much for time, throwing into jeopardy what Sanford C. Bernstein considers to be the "heart" of financial analysis.

Discounted cash flow modeling, or DCF, is a method of arriving at a fundamentally-driven net present value for companies based on the estimated evolution of their cash flows over the life of their operations. Future earnings potential is "discounted" in light of the presumption that receiving a dollar today is usually more valuable than a dollar tomorrow; in addition, because of the cost and risk associated with financing the creation of those cash flows.

The new normal of low interest rates means that an increasingly small amount of the net present value of a company is determined by its estimated financial performance in the near-term, however, with longer-term forecasts growing in importance even as they become more uncertain because of the unknown path of future interest rates and cash flows. This poses an acute problem for companies attempting to assess the merits of given investment project, or, even more so, a major acquisition as well as analysts seeking to gauge their worth.

"The problem is that they were invented and historically used in a world where risk free rates averaged 5 percent or more," writes a Bernstein team led by Head of Global Quantitative and European Equity Strategy Inigo Fraser-Jenkins. “In a world where the risk free rate is close to zero then the errors in such models explode.”

Analysts can be expected to offer increasingly inaccurate forecasts about a company’s ability to generate cash flows the longer their projection horizon extends, the strategist reasons.

So when the discount rate collapses, the overwhelming majority of the company's valuation is based on how its cash flow generation will evolve more than 10 years down the road, which magnifies an issue inherent in DCF analysis. 

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Source: Sanford C. Bernstein

"Our case is that any framework that ascribes anything approaching 90 percent of current value to cash flows that are necessarily unknowable far in the future has to be flawed," Fraser-Jenkins writes. "We have never had discount rates at such low levels as we have today and hence have never had this problem before."

Their research complements the recent work of St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who elected to forego publishing a long-term estimate for the federal funds rate, citing the possibility of a regime change that could radically alter potential neutral level of the policy rate. It also mimics complaints that have echoed in the corporate bond world, where analysts have long complained that low interest rates have wrought havoc on their default models.

Bernstein, which has lately been waging war on many traditional financial pillars, doesn't think it's time to toss DCF modeling into the rubbish bin.

Importantly, Fraser-Jenkins notes that inasmuch as this analysis is being used to assess the investment thesis for one equity relative to another, the major issue surrounding the impossibility  of forecasting a company's longer-term prospects washes out.

"Use DCFs, as we have little alternative," he concludes. But "any move lower in discount rates would, we suggest, cause a significant methodological problem for financial analysis."

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