What is Free Cash Flow?
Free cash flow (FCF) is an important metric used to evaluate a company's financial performance. It represents the cash generated by the company's operations that is available for distribution to investors, debt repayment, or reinvestment in the business. In simpler terms, free cash flow is the amount of cash a company has left over after it has paid all its expenses and made the necessary capital expenditures.
FCF is calculated by subtracting a company's capital expenditures and changes in working capital from its operating cash flow. Operating cash flow is the cash generated by a company's core business operations, while capital expenditures are the money spent on fixed assets such as property, plant, and equipment. Working capital refers to a company's short-term assets and liabilities, such as accounts receivable, inventory, and accounts payable.
Calculating the free cash flow enables investors and business owners to get a sense of a company's ability to generate cash that can be used to invest in growth opportunities, pay dividends, or pay off debt. A company with a positive free cash flow has more cash coming in than going out, while a company with a negative free cash flow is spending more cash than it is generating.
It is important to note that FCF is just one metric to evaluate a company's financial performance, and it should be used in conjunction with other financial measures such as earnings per share and return on equity. Additionally, free cash flow can vary widely between industries and companies. It is, therefore, important to compare free cash flow within a company's industry and over time to get a better sense of its financial performance.
Free cash flow is thus one of the key measures of a company's financial health, representing the cash available. By analyzing FCF, investors and business owners can make informed decisions about a company's value and potential for growth.
How to Calculate Free Cash Flow
Free cash flow is calculated by subtracting capital expenditures and changes in working capital from the company's operating cash flow. Operating cash flow, also known as cash flow from operations, is the cash generated by a company's core business operations, while capital expenditures refer to the money spent on fixed assets such as property, plant, and equipment. Working capital refers to a company's short-term assets and liabilities, such as accounts receivable, inventory, and accounts payable. Since free cash flow is calculated from three components, we will first explain how to calculate each of the components.
We can get the operating cash flow by subtracting the operating expenses of a firm from its revenue. It represents the cash generated by a company's core business operations, such as the sale of goods or services. To calculate operating cash flow, start with a company's net income and add back any non-cash expenses, such as depreciation and amortization. You should then subtract any increases in working capital, such as accounts receivable, inventory, and prepaid expenses. The calculation will result in a company's operating cash flow.
Capital expenditures are the money spent on fixed assets such as property, plant, and equipment, as well as investments in intangible assets such as patents and trademarks. These expenditures are made to maintain or improve a company's operations and are often considered essential to its long-term growth. Calculating capital expenditures starts with the amount spent on property, plant, equipment, and intangible assets during a given period. This amount represents the company's capital expenditures for that period.
Working capital can be calculated by subtracting the current liabilities of a company from its current assets. Current assets are expected to be converted to cash within one year, while current liabilities are liabilities due within one year. Changes in working capital occur when there are changes in a company's short-term assets and liabilities, such as accounts receivable, inventory, and accounts payable. Calculating changes in working capital entails subtracting the company's current working capital at the end of the period from its working capital at the beginning of the period.
Examples of how to calculate free cash flow
Let's say Company A has the following financial information for the year:
Operating cash flow: $500,000
Capital expenditures: $100,000
Changes in working capital: $50,000 (an increase in accounts receivable and inventory)
To calculate Company A's free cash flow, we would subtract its capital expenditures and changes in working capital from its operating cash flow:
Free cash flow = Operating cash flow - Capital expenditures - Changes in working capital
Free cash flow = $500,000 - $100,000 - $50,000
Free cash flow = $350,000
Therefore, Company A has generated $350,000 in free cash flow for the year.
Let's say Company B has the following financial information for the year:
Operating cash flow: $800,000
Capital expenditures: $200,000
Changes in working capital: -$100,000 (a decrease in accounts receivable and inventory)
To calculate Company B's free cash flow, we would use the same formula:
Free cash flow = Operating cash flow - Capital expenditures - Changes in working capital
Free cash flow = $800,000 - $200,000 - (-$100,000)
Free cash flow = $900,000
Therefore, Company B has generated $900,000 in free cash flow for the year.
Interpreting Free Cash Flow
We have already noted that a company with a positive free cash flow has more revenue than expenditure, while a company with a negative free cash flow has more expenses than total revenue. It is important to expound more about positive free cash flow, negative cash flow, and even improving free cash flow. These concepts will help us understand more about how to interpret the free cash flow.
Positive free cash flow
When a company generates positive free cash flow, it means that it has earned more from its business than it has spent on capital expenditures and changes in working capital. This is good for investors because it means the company has the cash to pay down debt, invest in new growth opportunities, or give back to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks. A positive free cash flow can also be an indication that a company is managing its resources efficiently and making a sustainable profit.
Negative free cash flow
When a company generates negative free cash flow, it means that it has spent more on investments and working capital than it has earned from its operations. This is not usually a good sign for investors because a negative free cash flow indicates that the company may need external funding, such as debt or equity, to finance its operations. Negative free cash flow can also indicate that a company is overspending on capital expenditures compared to operating cash flow, which can lead to financial stress in the future.
Improving free cash flow
Improving free cash flow is a positive sign for investors as it indicates that the company is generating more cash from its operations, reducing capital expenditures, or improving working capital management. Improving free cash flow trends may indicate that the company is operating more efficiently or effectively. Consequently, the company could have a stronger financial performance in the future. However, it is important to note that a single year of improving free cash flow does not necessarily indicate a sustained efficiency trend and should be viewed in the context of the company's overall financial health.
Applications of Free Cash Flow
Free cash flow can be a valuable tool for investors and analysts in many ways. It can be used as an evaluation tool, an indicator of financial health, and an investment decision. By understanding what free cash flow means, investors can better understand a company's financial performance and make more informed investment decisions. Below are some practical applications of free cash flow.
In corporate finance, free cash flow can be used to determine the amount of cash available for a company to reinvest in its operations or distribute to shareholders. This can be particularly useful when evaluating investment opportunities or making financing decisions.
Free cash flow can be used in investment management to identify companies that are generating sustainable profits and have the ability to invest in future growth opportunities. By analyzing free cash flow, investors can gain insight into a company's financial health and make informed investment decisions.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Free cash flow also applies in mergers and acquisitions since it can be used to assess the value of a target company. Acquirers can analyze a target company's free cash flow to gain insight into its ability to generate cash and fund future growth opportunities. This can help inform the negotiation process and ensure the acquisition is a sound investment.
Free cash flow can be used in credit analysis to assess a company's ability to service its debt obligations. Credit analysts should use the tool to gain insight into a company's cash flow generation and ensure that it has the ability to meet its debt obligations.
In business valuation, free cash flow can be used to determine the intrinsic value of a company. By analyzing a company's free cash flow, analysts can estimate the amount of cash that is available for distribution to investors and determine a fair value for the company.
Limitations of Free Cash Flow
While free cash flow is a useful financial metric, it also has some limitations that should be considered when interpreting the results. Some of the key limitations of free cash flow include the following.
Free cash flow can be affected by non-cash items, such as depreciation and amortization expenses. These expenses reduce a company's net income, but they do not require any cash outlay. As a result, free cash flow may overstate a company's true cash-generating ability.
Free cash flow is calculated based on cash flows from operations and capital expenditures over a certain period. This means that the timing of cash flows can have a significant impact on free cash flow. For example, a company may have a large capital expenditure in one period, reducing free cash flow, but the investment may generate significant returns in future periods.
The seasonality and cyclical nature of a company's business can also affect free cash flow. For example, a retail company may have negative free cash flow during the holiday season when it must stock up on inventory but positive free cash flow during other times of the year. Similarly, a company operating in a cyclical industry may have a fluctuating free cash flow due to economic conditions.
Finally, free cash flow provides limited insight into a company's future growth prospects. While free cash flow can indicate a company's ability to generate cash, it does not provide insight into the quality of a company's growth opportunities or its ability to execute those opportunities.
In summary, free cash flow is a useful financial metric that can provide insights into a company's cash-generating ability. We have already seen how free cash flow is useful for valuation, financial health assessment, and investment decision-making. Investors who have an understanding of the free cash flow can better understand a company's financial performance and make more informed investment decisions.However, it is important to consider the limitations of free cash flow when interpreting the results. Understanding these limitations should help get a complete picture of a company's financial health.