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Course 208
What Is Free Cash Flow?


Most people like to have some money left over after paying the bills--to take a trip, fix up the house, or save for a rainy day. Businesses are no different. But what we call mad money, they call free cash flow. It represents the cash a firm has generated for its shareholders, after paying its expenses and investing in its growth. Free cash flow is equal to total cash flow (earnings with noncash charges added back in) minus capital spending. Free cash flow can be very useful in assessing a company's financial health because it strips away all the accounting assumptions built into earnings. A company's earnings may be high and growing, but until you look at free cash flow, you don't know if the company's really generated money in a given year or not. If you're an owner, that's ultimately what you're interested in. Free cash flows represent real cash. Earnings do not.

What Free Cash Flow Tells You

To see what free cash flow tells us that earnings don't, take a look at Rainforest Cafe RAIN, the operator of theme restaurants (its stock has taken a nosedive since the end of 1997). From 1995 through 1997, the company posted $100,000, $5.9 million, and $12.3 million in earnings. Nice growth, right? The company's free cash flow, by contrast, was negative $7.0 million, negative $28.0 million, and negative $57.4 million. Free cash flows also grew--but in the opposite direction as earnings. That's not necessarily bad. Free cash flow is equal to the cash a company generates minus the amount it invests. Rainforest Cafe is investing a lot, which is why its free cash flows are negative. How much is a lot? A quick way to tell how quickly a company tears through money is to compare its capital spending with its long-term assets (mostly, its plant and equipment). While not always perfect, the comparison at least gives us an idea of how aggressively a company is spending. Rainforest Cafe's capital spending as a percentage of its current assets has been as high as 43%. That's one prolific spender. At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a company like Philip Morris MO, which cruises along spending an amount equal to about 5% of its long-term assets. When you see a percentage as high as 30% or 40%, chances are you're dealing with a young company just getting on its feet.

Big Spending and Cash Flow Can Work Together

Some companies--the really good ones--can spend aggressively and still generate free cash flows. For example, Intel INTC has annual capital spending of $3 billion or so, and its long-term assets are about $12 billion. That spending works out to 25% of its long-term assets, a pretty high figure. But although both Rainforest Cafe and Intel spend vast sums relative to their asset bases, we see a big difference when we look at their respective free cash flows. Intel's earnings from 1997 through 1999 were $6,945 million, $6,068 million, and $7,314 million.The company's free cash flows were $5,507 million, $5,634 million, and $7,932 million. In this case, the two sets of numbers move in tandem. Those positive free cash flows mean Intel has money left over even after its large capital-spending budgets. Intel covers its spending and then some. Rainforest Cafe, by contrast, must turn to investors--people like you and me--to make up the difference. Only by selling new shares to the public or taking out a loan can Rainforest Cafe fund its aggressive spending.

When Spending Doesn't Generate Cash Flow

At least Rainforest Cafe has grown rapidly (though not as rapidly as the market had hoped). What really hurts is when a company spends aggressively but its performance stinks. If a company is spending like mad, it had better be increasing its sales--and its profits--at a rapid clip. Intel and Rainforest Cafe pass that test. Electronics manufacturer Hitachi HIT doesn't. Its earnings in 1996, 1997, and 1998 totaled $1,473 million, $787 million, and $28 million, respectively. Its free cash flows, on the other hand, were negative $2,532 million, negative $2,347 million, and negative $2,187 million. For a mature company like Hitachi to generate such meager free cash flows is bad enough. But when a company spends an amount equal to about 20% of its long-term assets in a single year, you expect to see rapid growth. Yet Hitachi's revenues actually declined during this period; the company's long-term record of growth is poor when you consider how much money gets plowed into the company.

Using Free Cash Flow

Think of free cash flow as another bottom line. Negative free cash flow isn't necessarily bad, but it suggests you're dealing with either a speculative investment (such as Rainforest Cafe) or an underperformer (such as Hitachi). Above all, negative free cash flow or a high level of capital spending naturally raises other questions. If the company is spending so much money, is it at least earning a high return on that capital? And is all that spending paying off in rapid sales and profit growth? If you're a careful investor, you'll want to know the answers to those questions before letting the company spend your money.

Quiz 208
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 A major difference between free cash flow and earnings is:
a. Free cash flow does not include money made from interest payments.
b. Free cash flow adds back noncash charges.
c. Free cash flow cannot be negative.
2 If a company's capital spending is high relative to its fixed assets:
a. Its free cash flow will be high.
b. It is probably a mature company.
c. It is probably a relatively young company.
3 When a company has negative free cash flows:
a. It always has negative earnings.
b. It has to issue more stock or take on debt to make up the difference.
c. It probably isn't spending aggressively enough.
4 Which of the following is the worst combination for a company?
a. High capital spending and slow growth.
b. High capital spending and high growth.
c. Low capital spending and high growth.
5 When a company's free cash flow is shrinking but its earnings are growing:
a. It means the company is in serious trouble.
b. It means the company is slowing its spending
c. It means the company is spending very aggressively.
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