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Risk and the Cost of Capital

In Chapter 8 we set out the basic principles for valuing risky assets. This chapter shows you how to apply those principles when valuing capital investment projects.

Suppose the project has the same market risk as the company's existing assets. In this case, the project cash flows can be discounted at the company cost of capital. The company cost of capital is the rate of return that investors require on a portfolio of all of the company's outstanding debt and equity. It is usually calculated as an after-tax weighted-average cost of capital (after-tax WACC), that is, as the weighted average of the after-tax cost of debt and the cost of equity. The weights are the relative market values of debt and equity. The cost of debt is calculated after tax because interest is a tax-deductible expense.

The hardest part of calculating the after-tax WACC is estimation of the cost of equity. Most large, public corporations use the capital asset pricing model (CAPM) to do this. They generally estimate the firm's equity beta from past rates of return for the firm's common stock and for the market, and they check their estimate against the average beta of similar firms.

The after-tax WACC is the correct discount rate for projects that have the same market risk as the company's existing business. Many firms, however, use the after-tax WACC as the discount rate for all projects. This is a dangerous procedure. If the procedure is followed strictly, the firm will accept too many high-risk projects and reject too many low-risk projects. It is project risk that counts: the true cost of capital depends on the use to which the capital is put.

Managers, therefore, need to understand why a particular project may have above- or below-average risk. You can often identify the characteristics of a high- or low-beta project even when the beta cannot be estimated directly. For example, you can figure out how much the project's cash flows are affected by the performance of the entire economy. Cyclical projects are generally high-beta projects. You can also look at operating leverage. Fixed production costs increase beta.

Don't be fooled by diversifiable risk. Diversifiable risks do not affect asset betas or the cost of capital, but the possibility of bad outcomes should be incorporated in the cash-flow forecasts. Also be careful not to offset worries about a project's future performance by adding a fudge factor to the discount rate. Fudge factors don't work, and they may seriously undervalue long-lived projects.

There is one more fence to jump. Most projects produce cash flows for several years. Firms generally use the same risk-adjusted rate to discount each of these cash flows. When they do this, they are implicitly assuming that cumulative risk increases at a constant rate as you look further into the future. That assumption is usually reasonable. It is precisely true when the project's future beta will be constant, that is, when risk per period is constant.

But exceptions sometimes prove the rule. Be on the alert for projects where risk clearly does not increase steadily. In these cases, you should break the project into segments within which the same discount rate can be reasonably used. Or you should use the certainty-equivalent version of the DCF model, which allows separate risk adjustments to each period's cash flow.

The nearby box (on page XXX) provides useful spreadsheet functions for estimating stock and market risk.

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