‘Does management think the tooth fairy pays for capital expenditures?’

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This title is a quote from Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway's 2000 annual report. EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is a good financial metric to use in analyzing, comparing and valuing companies, but, as business owners and investors, we need to understand its limitations.

EBITDA is one of several measures of economic benefit to which a multiple can be applied to estimate value for a company. A multiple is the inverse of a capitalization or "cap" rate. When used properly, multiples are applied to an investor’s forward-looking cash flows and adjusted for risk.

EBITDA is a popular proxy for cash flow because we can easily calculate it from the P&L ¾ no balance sheet required. However, EBITDA ignores capital investment, working capital changes, taxes, borrowing, debt repayment and financing costs, which all affect a company’s cash flow and ability to pay dividends to its owners. The focus of this article is the “D” in EBITDA, or depreciation, which results from owning capital assets.

Don’t let anyone tell you depreciation doesn’t matter because it is a non-cash item. I have yet to sell or appraise a company that owns fixed assets that never need replacement. Not only do capital assets deteriorate, they are also subject to functional obsolescence caused by technology advancements (faster, cheaper, better) and sometimes new environmental regulations.

Here’s how Warren Buffet put it in his 2002 letter to shareholders, “Trumpeting EBITDA is a particularly pernicious practice. Doing so implies that depreciation is not truly an expense, given that it is a ‘non-cash’ charge. That’s nonsense. In truth, depreciation is a particularly unattractive expense because the cash outlay it represents is paid up front, before the asset acquired has delivered any benefits to the business. Imagine, if you will, that at the beginning of this year a company paid all of its employees for the next ten years of their service (in the way they would lay out cash for a fixed asset to be useful for ten years). In the following nine years, compensation would be a ‘non-cash’ expense – a reduction of a prepaid compensation asset established this year. Would anyone care to argue that the recording of the expense in years two through 10 would be simply a bookkeeping formality?”

Let’s imagine we’re in the drilling business, looking to grow through acquisition, and there are two companies in equally desirable markets available to us. Both companies operate the same number and type of drill rigs. Both generate $5 million in sales and $1 million EBITDA annually. Same EBITDA, same value, right? It’s a trick question. Company A’s rigs are four years old on average, while B’s rigs average 13 years old. We estimate that B will need $300,000 more in annual capital outlays to maintain its fleet and revenues going forward. Even though EBITDA is the same, Company A will generate substantially higher cash flows for us and is more valuable to us.

Now say there’s a Company C available. It also shows $1 million EBITDA and is equivalent to A and B in all other respects except that it sub-contracts drilling to several independent operators. It owns no rigs and has no capital expenditures or depreciation. (Since there are no assets to depreciate or replace, EBITDA is a better approximation of free cash flow.) From a cash flow perspective, C tops A and B.

In general, projected cash flow should be our metric for evaluating companies. Cash flow assumes adequate reinvestment in the business, as opposed to the unsustainable reinvestment shortfall represented by EBITDA.

EBITDA is a good starting point for sale, merger and acquisition discussions. Just don’t rely on it for making a major decision, unless you would buy a car knowing only the model and year, or propose marriage on the first date. There are more EBITDA hazards to avoid, but the depreciation trap is a key one. When one of Warren Buffet proteges comes calling, we’ll be ready.

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Al Statz, CBA/CBI, is president of Exit Strategies Group Inc., a business brokerage, mergers, acquisitions and valuation firm serving closely held businesses in Northern California. He can be reached confidentially at 707-778-2040 or alstatz@exitstrategiesgroup.com.