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Dangers of Using a Company-Wide Discount Rate

Any Finance 101 class will emphasize that the appropriate discount rate for a project depends on the project’s own characteristics, not the firm as a whole. If a utilities firm moves into media (e.g. Vivendi), it should use a media beta – not a utilities beta – to calculate the discount rate . However, a survey found that 58% of firms use a single company-wide discount rate for all projects, rather than a discount rate specific to the project’s characteristics. Indeed, when I was in investment banking, several clients would use their own cost of capital to discount a potential M&A target’s cash flows.

But the important question is – does this really matter? Perhaps an ivory-tower academic will tell you the correct weighted average cost of capital (WACC) is 11.524% but if you use 10%, is that good enough? Given the cash flows of a project are so difficult to estimate to begin with, it seems pointless to “fine-tune” the WACC calculation.

An interesting paper, entitled “The WACC Fallacy: The Real Effects of Using a Unique Discount Rate”, addresses the question. The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Finance and co-authored by Philipp Krueger of Geneva, Augustin Landier of Toulouse and David Thesmar of HEC Paris.

This paper shows that it matters. The authors first looked at organic investment (capital expenditure, or “capex”). If your core business is utilities and the non-core division is media, you should be using a media discount rate for non-core capex. But, if you incorrectly use a utilities discount rate, the discount rate is too low and you’ll be taking too many projects. The authors indeed find that capex in a non-core division is greater if the non-core division has a higher beta than the core division. Moreover, they find the effect is smaller (a) in recent years, consistent with the increase in finance education (e.g. MBAs), (b) for larger divisions – if the non-core division is large, then management puts the effort into getting it right, (c) when management has high equity incentives, as these also give them incentives to get it right.

The authors then turn to M&A. They find that conglomerates tend to buy high-WACC targets rather than low-WACC targets, again consistent with them erroneously using their own WACC to value a target, when they should be using the target’s own high WACC. Moreover, the attraction of studying M&A is the authors can measure the stock market’s reaction to the deal, to quantify how much value is destroyed. They find that shareholder returns are 0.8% lower when the target’s WACC is higher than the acquirer’s WACC. They study 6,115 deals and the average acquirer size is $2bn. Thus, the value destruction is 0.8% * $2bn * 6,115 = $98bn lost to acquirers in aggregate because they don’t apply a simple principle taught in Finance 101!

We often wonder whether textbook finance theory is relevant in the real world – perhaps you don’t need the “academically” right answer and it’s sufficient to be close enough. But this paper shows that “getting it right” does make a big difference.

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Why Banks Should Use Less Debt Financing

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there have been numerous calls for banks to finance themselves less with debt and more with equity, to reduce the risk of another crisis. But this has been met with great resistance by bankers. They argue that equity is costlier than debt, and so forcing them to use more equity will make it more expensive for them to raise capital. If they can’t raise as much capital, they won’t be able to lend as much to small businesses and homeowners; if it’s more expensive to raise capital, they’ll need to take on riskier projects to generate a high enough return to meet their cost of capital. For example, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan has said (paraphrased): “If they force us to hold more equity, we will have to take on riskier projects to hit our required return on equity”.

The Modigliani-Miller theorem, taught in undergrad or MBA finance 101, tells us that (under certain conditions), firm value is independent of capital structure – equity is no more costly than debt. Indeed, Jamie Dimon’s seemingly intuitive argument involves not one, not two, but three violations of basic finance theory:

  1. It treats the required return on equity as a constant (as if it were pi or Avogadro’s number). But, basic finance theory tells us that it depends on financial risk. If the firm is financed by more equity, it’s less risky, and so shareholders demand a lower return on equity. Banks won’t need to take on more risk, because the target will have fallen.
  2. Basic finance theory tells us that the required return on equity also depends on business risk. If the firm “takes on riskier projects”, shareholders will demand a higher return as a result. Thus, banks won’t have an incentive to take on more risk, because this will cause the target to rise.
  3. Equity is not something that you “hold”. It doesn’t sit idly on the balance sheet doing nothing – the bank can invest or lend the money raised by equity. Equity isn’t an asset, it’s a liability – it’s how a bank finances itself. If a firm finances itself with equity rather than debt (changes its liability mix), it needn’t change the projects it invests in (its asset mix).

The fallacies inherent in most bankers’ arguments are exposed in Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig’s influential book “The Bankers’ New Clothes“; see this link for non-technical articles on this topic. However, some bankers may counter that the Modigliani-Miller theorem doesn’t hold in the real world. There are valid reasons for why it’s advantageous to finance with debt rather than equity – debt gives tax shields, and incentivizes management to work harder to avoid bankruptcy.

But a new paper by Roni Kisin and Asaf Manela of the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis exposes these arguments – using banks’ own actions! They find that bankers’ own behavior suggests that they don’t view debt as useful – that the above advantages of debt are small in the real world. Their identification is clever. They exploit the fact that, prior to the crisis, banks had access to a loophole – asset-backed commercial paper conduits (a form of securitization) that allowed them to lower their equity capital requirements by 90%.

Using these conduits was costly – the interest rate on asset-backed commercial paper is higher than that on directly-issued commercial paper (which didn’t benefit from the loophole). Thus, banks traded off the benefits (of reducing equity capital requirements) with the costs of using the conduit. If financing themselves with equity, rather than debt, truly was costly, banks would have used the conduits to a large degree – particularly since the availability of the loophole was well-known to all banks.

But they didn’t. Roni and Asaf estimate that, based on the limited usage of these conduits, it’s not costly for banks to finance themselves with equity. Even if banks were to increase their equity ratios from 6% to 16%, this would cost all U.S. banks in aggregate $3.7 billion. The average cost per bank is $143 million, or 4% of annual profits. Lending interest rates would rise by 0.03% and quantities would decrease by 1.5%. While the above numbers are not small, they are far lower than the numbers branded around by bankers, and arguably a small price to pay to substantially reduce the risk of another crisis.

One caveat is that the authors are clear that they quantify the cost of increasing equity capital requirements, rather than the cost of increasing equity capital. It may be that the cost of increasing equity capital requirements is low, not because the cost of raising equity is low, but because banks have other ways of complying with the requirements (e.g. other loopholes, or changing the riskiness of the assets they invest in). Nevertheless, the paper provides innovative evidence that increasing capital requirements is much lower than what many banks claim.

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How Corporate Credit Ratings Induce Short-Termism

Credit rating agencies were under particular scrutiny in the recent financial crisis, as critics argue they gave too high ratings to securities that turned out to be toxic. One potential culprit is the “issuer-pays” model, where it is the company being rated that pays for credit ratings, which may encourage rating agencies to be overly-generous to win business.

But, a recent paper by my new LBS colleague Taylor Begley points to an important additional cost of corporate credit ratings – and one that arises even if ratings are perfectly accurate. Companies may engage in short-term behavior to achieve a particular credit rating. This problem arises because credit ratings are discrete categories (e.g. AAA, AA+, BB) rather than a continuous number (e.g. 93.2, 87.8). Thus, a company has a strong incentive to just get into the AAA- category than be at the top of the AA+ category.

In turn, a major driver of credit ratings is a company’s financial ratios. For example, for firms with an excellent business risk profile, a Debt/EBITDA ratio of 1.5-2.0 typically leads to a rating of AA; a ratio of 2.0-3.0 typically leads to a rating of A. For firms with a fair business risk profile, a Debt/EBITDA ratio of 1.5-2.0 typically leads to a rating of BBB-; a ratio of 2.0-3.0 typically leads to a rating of BB+ (which is below investment-grade, i.e. has “junk” status). (Source: Standard & Poor’s Business Risk / Financial Risk Matrix).

These discrete thresholds thus give companies incentives to be lie just below a threshold. They can achieve this by short-term behavior such as cutting research and development (R&D). This increases EBITDA, thus reducing the Debt/EBITDA ratio and potentially meeting the threshold. Importantly, the incentives to engage in short-termism depend on where the firm is compared to the next lowest threshold. A firm with a Debt/EBITDA ratio of 2.1 has strong incentives to engage in short-termism, because it has a high chance of being able to lower it to below 2.0, but a firm with a Debt/EBITDA ratio of 2.5 has much weaker incentives. Taylor indeed finds that firms close to a threshold are significantly more likely to cut not only R&D, but also selling, general, and administrative (SG&A) expenses, which contains expenditure in advertising, information technology, employee training, and other forms of organizational capital.

Other papers have previously found evidence of short-termism to meet other types of thresholds – for example, companies may cut R&D to ensure their earnings fall just above analyst earnings expectations. But a particularly novel finding of this paper is that Taylor is able to document negative long-run effects of such short-termism. Companies close to ratings thresholds subsequently suffer declines in the number of patents that they produce, and also the number of citations to their patents (a measure of the quality of innovation). They also experience declines in profitability and valuation ratios.

The cost of credit ratings that critics typically focus upon is that inaccurate ratings lead to redistributional consequences. If the ratings of a security are too high, the buyer pays too much for them. Thus, the seller wins and the buyer loses. While these redistributional concerns are clearly very important, they don’t directly affect the overall size of the pie (sellers get a larger slice, buyers a smaller slice). In contrast, Taylor shows that credit ratings have efficiency (rather than just redistributional) consequences – they affect the overall size of the pie. If companies cut investment to meet ratings thresholds, they erode their future value, making everyone worse off in the long-run. This is a particular concern for the 21st century firm, whose value is especially driven by intangible assets (such as brand strength, innovative capabilities, and corporate culture) which requires several years to build and bear fruit.

The paper certainly does not argue that credit ratings should be scrapped; these costs must be weighed against their numerous benefits. Many financial targets (e.g. analyst earnings expectations) also have the potential to lead to short-termism. Rather, the paper highlights a potential cost to credit ratings that boards may be able to mitigate. One potential remedy that discussed in a previous post is to increase the vesting period of executives’ stock and options, to tie them to the long-run performance of the firm.