The Bonfire Of Venture Capital: The Good, Bad And Ugly Side Of Cash Burn! by Aswath Damodaran
In my last post on Uber, I noted that it was burning through cash and that this cash burn, by itself, is neither unexpected nor a bad sign. Since I got quite a few comments on what I said, I decided to make this post just about the causes and consequences of cash burn. In the process, I hope to dispel two myths held on opposite ends of the investing spectrum, the notion on the part of value investors, that a high cash burn signals a death spiral for a business and the equally strongly held belief, at the start-up investing end , that a cash burn is a sign of growth and vitality.
Cash Burn: The what?
Since it is cash burn, not earnings burn, that concerns us, let’s start with the obvious. It is cash flow, not earnings, that is at the heart of a cash burn problem. While many money losing companies have cash burn problems, not all cash burn problems are money losing, and not all money losing companies have a cash burn problem. To understand cash burn, you have to start with a working definition of cash flows and my definition hews closely to what I use in the context of valuing businesses. The free cash flow to the firm is the cash left over after taxes have been paid and reinvestment needs (to maintain existing assets and generate future growth) have been met:
For mature, going concerns, the after-tax operating income and free cash flow to the firm will be positive (at least on average) and that cash flow is used to service debt payments as well as to provide cash flows to equity in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. Any remaining cash flow, after debt payments and dividends/buybacks, augments the cash balance of the company.
[drizzle]But what if the free cash flow to the firm is negative? That can happen either because a company has operating losses or because it has large reinvestment needs or both occur in tandem. If you have negative free cash flow to the firm, you can draw down an existing cash balance to cover that need and if that turns out to be insufficient, you will have to raise fresh capital, either in the form of new debt or new equity. If this negative cash flow is occasional and is interspersed with positive cash flows in other years, as is often the case with cyclical or commodity companies, you consider it to be a reflection of normal operations of the firm and it should cause few issues in valuation. If, on the other hand, a business has negative cash flows year in and year out, it is said to be burning through cash or having a “cash burn” problem.
To measure the magnitude of the cash spending problem, analysts use a variety of measures. One is to compute the dollar cash spent in a time period, usually a month, and that is termed the Cash Burn rate. Another is to compute the Cash Runway, the time period that it will take for a company to run through its existing cash balance. Thus, a firm with a $1 billion cash balance and a negative cash flow of -$500 million a year has a 2-year Cash Runway. In contrast, another company with a $1 billion cash balance and a negative cash flow of -$ 2 billion a year has only a 6-month Cash Runway.
Cash Burn: The Why?
Looking at the definition of cash flows should give you a quick sense of why you get high cash burn values (and ratios) at some companies. If your company is and has been losing money or generating very small earnings for an extended period and it sees high growth potential in the future (and invests accordingly), your cash flows will reflect that reality.
That combination of low operating income/operating losses and high reinvestment is what you should expect to see at many young companies and the resulting negative free cash flow to the firm will be the norm rather than the aberration. As the companies move through the life cycle, the benign perspective on cash burn is that this will cease to be a problem.
As the company scales up, its operating income and margins should increase and as growth starts to scale down (in future years), the reinvestment should start dropping.
Cash Burn: The what next?
The combination of higher operating margins and lower reinvestment should generate a cross over point where cash flows turn positive and these positive cash flow will carry the value. Rather than talking in abstractions, let me use the numbers in my August 2016 Uber valuation to illustrate. The story that I am telling in these numbers is of a going concern and success, with high revenue growth accompanied by improving operating margins as the first leg, followed by declining growth (and reinvestment) converting negative cash flows to positive cash flows in the second leg and a steady state of high earnings and cash flows reflected in a going concern value in the final phase.
In my Uber forecasts, the cash flows are negative for the first six years, with losses in the first five years adding on to reinvestment in those years. The cash flows turn positive in year 7, just as growth starts to slow and accelerate in the final years of the forecasts. Though these numbers are specific to Uber, the pattern of cash flows that you see in this figure is typical of the good cash burn story.
The life cycle story that I have laid out is the benign one, where after its start-up pains, a young company turns the corner, starts generating profits and ultimately turns cash flows around. Before you buy into the fairy talk that I have told you, you should consider a more malignant version of this story. In this one, the firm starts off as a growth firm with negative margins and high reinvestment (and cash burn). As the revenues increase over time and the company scales up, the cost structure continues to spiral out-of-control and the margins become more negative over time, rather than less. In fact, with reinvestment creating an additional drain on the cash flows, your free cash flow will be negative for extended and very long time periods and you are on the pathway to venture capital hell. To illustrate what the cash flows would look like in this malignant version of cash burn, I revisited the Uber valuation and changed two numbers. I reduced the operating margin (targeted for year 10) from 20% down to 5% (making ride sharing a commoditized business) and increased reinvestment to match a typical US company (by setting the sales to capital ratio to two, instead of three). The effects on the cash flows are dramatic.