If there were a contest for the most measured number in finance, the winner would be the cost of capital. Corporate finance departments around the world compute it as an integral part of investment analysis. Appraisers estimate it as a step towards estimating intrinsic or discounted cash flow value. Analysts spend disproportionate amounts of their time working on it, though not always for the right reasons or with the right inputs. Since I have spent a significant portion of my life, writing and talking about cost of capital, it stands to reason that it is one of the numbers that I compute for all the companies in my data base at the start of every year.
Defining the cost of capital
There are three different ways to frame the cost of capital and each has its use. Much of the confusion about measuring and using cost of capital stem from mixing up the different definitions:
- For businesses, the cost of capital is a cost of raising financing: The first is to read the cost of capital literally as the cost of raising funding to run a business and thus build up to it by estimating the costs of raising different types of financing and the proportions used of each. This is what we do when we estimate a cost of equity, based on a beta, betas or some other risk proxy, a cost of debt, based upon what the business can borrow money at and adjusting for any tax advantages that might accrue from borrowing.
- For businesses, the cost of capital is an opportunity cost for investing in projects: The cost of capital is also an opportunity cost, i.e., the rate of return that the business can expect to make on other investments, of equivalent risk. The logic is simple. If you are considering investing in a new asset or security, you have to earn more than you could make by investing the money elsewhere. There are two subparts to this statement. The first is that it is the choices that you have today that should determine this opportunity cost, not choices that you might have had in the past. The second is that it has to be on investments of equivalent risk. Thus, the cost of capital should be higher for riskier investments than safe ones.
- For investors, the cost of capital is a discount rate to value a business: Investors looking at buying into a business are effectively buying a portfolio of investments, current and future, and to value the business, they have to make an assessment of the collective risk in the portfolio and how it may change over time.
A good measure of cost of capital will find a way to bridge the differences between the three definitions and I believe that we can do so, with a little common sense and some data.
For this process to yield a number to meet all three requirements for cost of capital, i.e., that it be a cost of raising funding, an opportunity cost and a required return for investors, here are the requirements:
- Investors price companies based upon a reasonable assessment of the company’s business mix (and country risk exposure) and what they can generate as expected returns on alternative choices of equivalent risk. The former requires companies to provide information on their business mixes and the latter generally is easier to do in a liquid, public market.
- A company that operates in multiple businesses and many countries cannot use a single, “company-wide” cost of capital as its hurdle rate in investments. It has to adjust the cost of capital for both the riskiness of the business in which the investment is being planned and the part of the world that it is going to be located in.
- The overall company’s cost of capital has to be a weighted average of the costs of capitals of the businesses that it operates in, and as the business mix changes, the cost of capital will, as well.
Estimating the Cost of Capital
Having laid the groundwork, let’s get down to specifics. If you, as an investor, are given the task of estimating the cost of capital for a company, here is the sequence of steps. First, you have to estimate the business risk in the company by taking a weighted average of the risks of the businesses that the company operates. Second, you have to adjust that risk measure for the effects of debt, which effectively magnifies your business risk exposure, and use the consolidated risk measure to estimate a cost of equity. Third, you have to bring in the cost of borrowing, net of any tax benefit, which will reflect the default risk in the company. Finally, taking a weighted average of the cost of equity and after-tax cost of debt yields a cost of capital. If you are approaching the same task as a CFO, you have to follow the same sequence to get a cost of capital for the company but you have to go further and estimate the costs of capital for the individual businesses that the company is invested in.
As someone who teaches corporate finance and valuation, I am equally interested in both sides of this estimation process and one of my objectives in providing data is to help both sides. To help companies in investment analysis, I try to estimate costs of capital by sector, in the hope that a multi-business company will be able to find the information here to build up business-specific costs of capital. While investors may also find this information useful in valuation/investment analysis, I also estimate costs of capital for individual companies, and while my data providers no longer allow me to share these company-specific costs of capital, I can still provide information on the distribution of costs of capital across companies that can be useful to investors.
a. Cost of capital by sector
In my data updates each year, I estimate the cost of capital, by sector, for companies both globally and classified by region (US, Europe, Japan, Emerging Markets). In making these estimates, I first begin by breaking my total sample of 41,410 companies down into 96 industry groups, some of which may be far broader than you would like to see. I prefer this broad categorization for two reasons. First, I estimate a beta for each industry group by averaging the betas of the individual companies in that group, and these estimates are more precise with larger sample sizes. Second, from a first principles perspective, I believe that since betas measure risk from a macro risk perspective, you are better served with broader categories than narrow ones. Thus, rather than estimate the beta for shrimp fishing as a business, I would rather estimate the beta for food processing businesses (assuming that the only reason that people buy shrimp is to eat them.). Once I have the industry groups, I estimate the cost of equity for each group (in US dollar terms, by using a US dollar risk free rate and a equity risk premium in US dollar terms, though the magnitude of the premium can vary across countries and regions)