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Course 307
Cash Return


You don't have to be an experienced investor to know that generating lots of cash is generally a good thing. Just think of your own personal finances. It's always a bad month when the cash in your checking account doesn't cover your bills. Ideally, the businesses you invest in are pumping out more cash than they are taking in. But even if they are, how can you tell whether a company is generating a gusher of cash or barely scraping by? That's where cash return (also known as cash-on-cash return) comes in. This handy number tells how much you have to pay for the company's cash flow.

Watch the Cash Flow

Cash return consists of two parts: The free cash flow a company has generated, divided by the value of the entire company with debt taken into account. Cash return = free cash flow / ( market cap + debt ) From a shareholder's perspective, the higher the cash return, the better you feel, because a high cash return means a company is generating lots of free cash flow for each dollar you have invested in the company. If a company has a cash-on-cash return of 10%, for example, that means that somebody buying the whole company would be getting an investment that generates 10 cents in free cash flow for each dollar invested. Cash-on-cash return is helpful because it's easy to compare investments. A 30-year U.S. Treasury bond yielded about 6% at the end of 1999, while Coca-Cola KO, for example, yielded about 3.5% in cash return. In this sense, cash-on-cash return is similar to such valuation measures as dividend yield (dividend per share divided by the stock price) and earnings yield (earnings per share divided by the stock price). But cash return is a purer measure because it's based on the raw operating cash--not on earnings after taxes have been paid or what the company elects to pay out to shareholders. To figure the free cash flow part of the equation, start with EBITDA, which stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. It tracks how money moves in and out of a company's checkbook in real time, independently from the accounting rules that color reported earnings. From EBITDA, subtract capital spending, or money the company has invested in maintaining the growth of its business. The result is the cash left over for benefiting shareholders or improving the business. (Good news: Free cash flow is calculated for you on a stock's Quicktake Report.)

Enterprise Value

The second part of the equation--market cap plus liabilities--is the company's "enterprise value." It is the amount it would cost an investor to buy the whole company, lock, stock and barrel. The idea is that such a hypothetical investor would have to pay for all the company's stock and pay off any debt left over after the cash is depleted. As an example of how enterprise value works, consider Philip Morris MO and Intel INTC. Both of these companies generated more than $6 billion in free cash flows in 1998--quite an impressive feat. But Philip Morris has a market cap of about $55 billion and an enterprise value of about $101 billion, as opposed to a market cap in the neighborhood of $268 billion for Intel and an enterprise value of about $278 billion. Thus, Philip Morris' cash-on-cash return of 5.9% ($6 billion/$101 billion) is significantly higher than Intel's 2.2% ($6 billion/$278 billion). A list of companies with high cash-on-cash returns can be a good starting place for someone seeking reasonably priced but profitable stocks. Beware, though: Sometimes a company will have a temporarily high cash-on-cash return because its share price has plummeted, thus reducing its market capitalization. And tiny companies usually have much more volatile cash flows than bigger, more stable firms do. That's why it's usually a good idea to screen out very small companies and those with erratic earnings when looking for potential cash cows. If used prudently, though, cash-on-cash return is an excellent way to measure how well a company is generating cash for its owners.

Quiz 307
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Cash return:
a. Is different from cash-on-cash return.
b. Tells you how much you have to pay for a company's cash flow.
c. Indicates whether a company can supply enough products to meet customers' demand.
2 You need the following components to calculate cash return:
a. Free cash flow, share price, and year-to-date return.
b. Free cash flow, market capitalization, and debt.
c. Share price and a company's enterprise value.
3 Enterprise value is:
a. Market capitalization plus free cash flow.
b. The amount it would take to buy a company outright.
c. EBITDA and free cash flow.
4 A company's cash return will fluctuate if:
a. It launches new products.
b. Its debt decreases.
c. Free cash flow remains steady.
5 Cash return can be unpredictable or misleading if the company's:
a. Debt is always constant.
b. Cash flow is stable.
c. Stock price fluctuates dramatically.
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