Aswath Damodaran – Ups and Downs: Valuing Cyclical and Commodity Companies via CSInvesting

Stern School of Business, New York University

September 2009


Cyclical and commodity companies share a common feature, insofar as their value is often more dependent on the movement of a macro variable (the commodity price or the growth in the underlying economy) than it is on firm specific characteristics. Thus, the value of an oil company is inextricably linked to the price of oil just as the value of a cyclical company is tied to how well the economy is doing. Since both commodity prices and economies move in cycles, the biggest problem we face in valuing companies tied to either is that the earnings and cash flows reported in the most recent year are a function of where we are in the cycle, and extrapolating those numbers into the future can result in serious misvaluations. In this paper, we look at the consequences of this dependence on cycles and how best to value companies that are exposed to this problem.

Aswath Damodaran – Ups and Downs: Valuing Cyclical and Commodity Companies – Introduction

Uncertainty and volatility are endemic to valuation, but cyclical and commodity companies have volatility thrust upon them by external factors – the ups and downs of the economy with cyclical companies, and movements in commodity prices with commodity companies. As a consequence, even mature cyclical and commodity companies have volatile earnings and cash flows. When valuing these companies, the danger of focusing on the most recent fiscal year is that the resulting valuation will depend in great part on where in the cycle (economic or commodity price) that year fell. If the most recent year was a boom (down) year, the value will be high (low).

In this paper, we look at how best to deal with the swings in earnings that characterize commodity and cyclical companies in both discounted cash flow and relative valuations. We argue that trying to forecast the next cycle is not only futile but dangerous and that it is far better to normalize earnings and cash flows across the cycle.

The Setting

There are two groups of companies that we look at in this paper. The first group includes cyclical companies, i.e., companies whose fortunes rest in large part on how the economy is doing. The second group of companies are commodity companies that derive their earnings from producing commodities that may become inputs to other companies in the economy (oil, iron ore) or be desired as investments in their own right (gold, platinum, diamonds).

Cyclical Companies

We usually define cyclical firms in relation to the overall economy. Firms that move up and down with the economy are considered cyclical companies. There are two ways of identifying these firms:

  • The first is to categorize industry sectors into cyclical and non-cyclical, based on historical performance, and to assume that all firms in the sector share the same characteristics. For instance, the housing and automobile sectors have historically been considered to be cyclical, and all firms in these sectors will share that label. While the approach is low-cost and simple, we run the risk of tarring all firms in a sector with the same brush; thus Walmart and Abercombie & Fitch would both be categorized as cyclical firms because they are in the retailing business. In addition, categorizing some sectors, such as technology, into cyclical or non-cyclical has
    become much more difficult to do.
  • The second is to look at a company’s own history, in conjunction with overall economic performance, to make a categorization. Thus, a company that has historically reported lower earnings/revenues during economic downturns and higher earnings/revenues during economic boom times would be viewed as cyclical. This approach allows for more nuance than the first one bit it works only when the companies being analyzed have long operating histories. Furthermore, factors specific to the firm can cause volatility in earnings that can make this analysis misleading.

In general, the shift from manufacturing-based economies to service-based economies has made it more difficult to categorize firms. At the same time, though, every economic recession reminds us that some firms are affected more negatively than other when the economy slows down. In other words, it is not that there are fewer cyclical firms today than there used to be two or three decades ago, but it is that we have a more difficult time pinpointing these firms ahead of the fact.

Commodity Companies

We can categorize commodity companies into three groups. The first group has products that are inputs to other businesses, but are not consumed by the general public; included in this group would be mining companies like Vale, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. The second group generates output that is marketed to consumers, though there may other intermediaries involved in the process; in this group would be most of the food and grains companies. The third group includes firms whose output serves both other businesses and consumers; the oil and natural gas businesses come to mind but gold mining companies can also be considered part of this group.

commodity companies

commodity companies

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