If you look at either the build-up or CAPM cost of capital models for discount rate calculation, the elements can be broken down into two major groups: systematic and unsystematic risk.

Systematic risk is unavoidable, you cannot diversify away from it as it affects the entire market. Unsystematic risk, on the other hand, is something the investors should handle by diversification. In other words, you should not expect additional returns just because you put all your eggs in one basket.

Yet this is precisely what many small business owners do. Their company is the major source of their investment and commands their undivided attention to run successfully. Even if the public capital markets are silent about the company specific risk, it is quite real.

In the eyes of a financial expert, company specific risk premium or CSRP for short, cannot be observed. That’s because public company investors do in fact diversify from risks inherent in any particular company or asset. But if your company is more or less risky than the market as a whole, you are incurring the additional risks every day.

So a realistic approach when valuing a private firm that is expected to continue in private ownership is to account for this additional risk element. The typical factors that contribute to make a company more or less risky are these:

  • Earnings growth expectations: is the firm likely to be more or less profitable than its industry peers?
  • Financial leverage: can the company service its debt without financial failure?
  • Operational risk: can the operations be successfully scaled to meet the market demand and sustain growth?
  • Profitability: will the firm be able to generate profits in line with investor expectations?
  • Customer concentration: does the company depend on just a few customers for most of its sales?
  • Competitive position: does the firm operate in a well defended market niche or can it be easily replaced by competitors?
  • Management and key staff: what is the quality of the management team when compared to the industry peers?

Successful private companies with smooth, predictable earnings operating in a market niche they can defend skillfully tend to be less risky. On the other hand, a firm that is likely to experience competitive headwinds from well funded, large companies without a strategy of defending its turf is likely to be far more risky. The way to assess this level of risk is to analyze the company specific risk factors and adjust your discount and capitalization rates accordingly.

The debate about how to assess company risk and calculate the discount and cap rates rages on. While the CAPM and Build Up cost of capital models remain widely accepted, the devil, as usual, is in the details.

None as obvious as when using the risk premia for building up the equity discount rates for valuation. There seems no argument among the industry mavens that the risk free rate of return and so-called equity risk premium, or ERP for short, are the gold standard.

Company size premium – does size matter?

With this pretty much settled, the lively debate ensues as soon as you venture into the murky world of company size risk premia. The idea behind this additional element of discount rates is that smaller, less capitalized companies are inherently more risky than the larger, more established competitors.

Big business advantages and size effect on company’s value

Other things being equal, a large competitor is likely to enjoy better access to capital investment, greater acceptance of their products and services by customers, more flexibility in dealing with regulatory compliance (yes, the lobbying does pay off quite often), handsome war chests for fending off legal challenges, and much more.

Market acceptance of established companies is well known. Consider the power of a brand from a major competitor and compare it to a functionally equivalent product from a less known, smaller company. Study after study shows that customers prefer to go with the better known brands from larger companies.

In the business to business space, customers may hesitate to commit to purchases from a new vendor for fear of the company failing and leaving them high and dry without a critical supply. Often the procurement managers would demand to see the start-up’s balance sheet just to make sure they are not going belly up any time soon. The old adage of ‘show me the money’ plays right into the hands of larger, established deep pockets competitors.

Bigger companies also tend to enjoy the economies of scale, unavailable to their smaller industry peers. Ever wonder how come a large software company can come up with a working prototype by lunch time, while a smaller company has to invest ‘all-nighters’ to show similar progress?

That’s because the big company has plenty of talent on board with many pre-existing solutions lying around ready for reuse. They don’t need to reinvent the proverbial wheel, plenty of spare parts ready to be plugged into a new solution.

Smaller companies – trail blazers often fly under the radar screen

As a result, smaller companies often thrive in the netherworld of emerging markets. Big companies are generally not interested in such opportunities until they become large enough to warrant their attention. If and when that time comes, the bigger company usually has the luxury of either making their own competitive offering or buying a start-up’s technology and bringing the key talent on board.

All these and many other factors add up to making the larger companies a safer place to conceive and bring to market new products and services. Common sense tells us that this lower level of operational and financial risk should translate into measurable evidence of lower cost of capital.

Dilemma – when data analysis fails to back the company risk premium

Some financial analysts focus on data evidence exclusively to validate this idea. Smaller companies historic returns must be higher in order to demonstrate their higher cost of capital. The problem with this approach is that if your data analysis fails to show up the difference in returns between companies of various sizes, you would be tempted to assume that smaller companies are about as risky as their larger competitors.

The mindset behind this is ‘if I can’t see it, it does not exist’.

To a seasoned business person this would sound like being asked to suspend disbelief. A pragmatic response would be, ‘if you don’t see evidence of an obvious trait, your analysis is flawed, or you are not looking hard enough in your data collection’.

When a business sells, the owners are supposed to allocate the purchase price across all tangible and intangible assets. The overage is then deemed to be due to goodwill.

In the past, it mattered little if some of the important intangible assets were lumped together with business goodwill. The reason? There used to be little difference in how business intangible assets, such as intellectual property or customer contracts, were handled in the company’s financial records.

Business goodwill impairment

Along come the SFAS 141 an 142 published by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and everything changes. No longer is business goodwill amortized. Rather, companies must conduct the goodwill impairment test and adjust their income statements accordingly. In addition, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) now require that all intangible assets be amortized. In other words, such assets as software, technology, customer and vendor contracts, patents, copyrights and trademarks, all are expected to be gradually used up in business operations.

With these new financial reporting rules, companies have an incentive to put high values on goodwill and reduce the values of other intangible assets. The benefit of this strategy is that you can increase the reported earnings without any effect on the business cash flow. Earnings per share go up, so the company stock value increases.

According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), there are several types of business intangible assets that must be valued:

  • Customer related intangibles
  • Creative intangibles
  • Marketing oriented intangible assets
  • Technology specific intangibles
  • Contractual intangible assets

All these assets must be recognized as distinct from business goodwill. Contract specific assets do not need to be actually separable. However, all other intangible assets must be capable of being sold on their own.

This sounds a bit tricky. The plain English meaning is that an intangible asset must be either based on a legally enforceable right, such as a customer contract, or be sellable by itself, such as a license to use a patented invention.

To see the difference, imagine the problems with trying to transfer a trained and assembled workforce to another company. You are unlikely to have this valuable asset preserved intact, in contrast to the licensing of a trademark.

Take a look at a professional business appraisal report and you will see a discussion of the current trends in the industry and expectations going forward. No business operates in a vacuum and economic conditions, especially emerging trends in the industry sector, make a big difference to what a company is worth.

Think about a growing company in an expanding industry with great profit potential and few large competitors who could dominate the market. Compare this to a declining industry controlled by a handful of deep pocketed mega-firms and major regulatory hurdles looming on the horizon.

The effect of such industry trends often far outweighs the overall economic conditions as it has the most direct influence on the company’s ability to compete.

When valuing a business, you need to pay careful attention to the industry trends and analyze how the company plans to rise up to the challenge. This requires a careful review of management, key staff, financial strength of the firm, its product and service competitive position. Your valuation report should help the reader see how the company fits into its market and why it will continue to be successful.

This analysis underlies the assumptions you make when calculating business value. Regardless of the actual methods you use to come up with your business valuation conclusion, the results should be based on sound assessment of the company’s industry and its prospects going forward. Cranking out numbers that ask your reader to suspend disbelief will not cut it.

If you are looking to appraise a business, looking at market evidence to support your conclusions is very useful. After all, the market is the final arbiter of what a company is worth. Short of test driving the market by putting your company up for sale, looking up recent business selling prices is the next best thing.

So far, so good. But the answer you get is only as good as the data you are able to gather. The old adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies to business valuations as well.

You may be tempted to delve into data sources touted as treasure troves of valuable data by their vendors. Comparing your company to similar firms that actually sold recently could help you work up a set of valuation multiples to estimate your business market value.

The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details. High quality data on private companies is scarce. Aside from filing tax returns with the Federal and local government, private companies are not obligated to disclose their financial and operational data to anyone. In fact, most private business owners consider such data highly proprietary and confidential.

So where do the data resellers get their data from? Usually, private company sales data comes from participating business brokers. While some brokers may disclose the details of their transactions, most consider such data their competitive advantage, and keep it under lock and key. When business seller prospects look around for a broker to sell their business, those with the most knowledge of the market tend to attract future customers.

The result is that most private company sales never get published. If you consult a data source on private business sales, you are likely to see only a small fragment of the deals actually made.

Most business brokers are sales people. Many lack the financial reporting skills and may report data that obscures the actual financial picture of the company. There is no compliance requirement with financial reporting standards, such as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP, as is the case for public companies.

Private business owners are famous for their skill at creative accounting in order to minimize taxable income. That’s why business appraisers spend considerable time adjusting company financials before appraisal. Since data on private companies does not include detailed background information, it is very difficult to adjust reported financials to reconstruct a true picture of company’s financial performance.

The result is your valuation multiples can be quite misleading.

As the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If you doubt the valuation multiples you get by crunching the numbers obtained from a data reseller, it’s time for a ‘second opinion’. The best way is to source data on small capitalization public companies in the same industry. These firms are subject to the rules that mandate consistent financial reporting and full disclosure of the company’s current situation and prospects.

To make an ‘apples to apples’ comparison to a private company, adjust the valuation multiples you get for lack of marketability. The factor, known as DLOM, accounts for the relative reduction in business value because a private company cannot sell its stock freely to the public.

Now you can compare your valuation multiples from both public and private sources.

The USPAP standards, published by the Appraisal Foundation, cover every element of valuation for real, personal, and business properties. When it comes to reporting your business valuation results, it’s worth consulting Standard 10.

The Standard does not dictate the choice of form, format or style in compiling valuation reports. This is left to you as an author. The important point is the content. This makes sense as business appraisals address a wide range of audiences and situations, each with its own preferences.

To comply with the USPAP Standard 10, your report should state clearly all the assumptions, special considerations, and sources of information you have used in conducting your business valuation. The idea is that your intended readers should have enough to understand how you came up with your conclusions.

Appraisal and Restricted Appraisal report options

The latest Standard 10 makes a distinction between two major options: an Appraisal Report and a Restricted Appraisal Report. The latter is only intended for the client. Whenever other parties are going to be reading the report, the Standard 10 requires that you follow the more general Appraisal Report option.

The key difference is the depth and type of information you provide in your report. It is one thing to create a valuation just for your client, who is very familiar with the company. You can assume a level of understanding of the business specifics that is not available to outsiders. For example, a lender or investor looking to put money into your client’s company would likely require a lot more disclosure to make up their mind.

Avoid one-size-fits-all boilerplate reports!

If you do prepare a full blown Appraisal Report, be sure to indicate who the intended readers are. Everyone’s needs for information are different and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ does not work in business valuation.

Elements of USPAP Standard 10 compliant appraisal report

The key elements you need to include in a standard-compliant report are these:

  • Identify the client and any other recipients of the report.
  • State the purpose of the business valuation.
  • Discuss what is being valued, such as business assets included in your analysis.
  • State if the valuation is done on a controlling interest basis.
  • Indicate if there is any limitation as to the marketability of business assets.
  • Mention what standard and premise of business value you are using in your work.
  • State the date of your appraisal and the reporting date, if these are different.
  • Outline the scope of your analysis, including the sources of information researched and used.
  • Describe the approaches and methods used for calculation of business value and explain how you reached your value conclusion.
  • Explain any unusual circumstances and conditions that influenced your valuation.

Use all three valuation approaches

A USPAP Standard compliant valuation should use all three valuation approaches. That is to say, your analysis should look at business value from the Asset, Income and Market perspectives. If you decide to omit any of these major approaches, you should explain it in your report.

For example, you may be appraising a pioneering technology company that has no equals in the marketplace. It may be reasonable to forgo the use of the market approach methods as no reliable comparables are available.

Don’t forget to sign your report and mention anyone else who may have helped in your valuation. Clearly state the scope and limitations of your analysis so that your readers know what to expect. Your business appraisal report is the finished work product and represents the quality of your work.

Part of business appraisal is assessing the value of business assets. This is especially important if the company is for sale and the purchase price needs to be allocated across its asset base.

Business equipment values are typically established by market comparison. A business machine is valued based on its functional utility and condition, regardless of where it is located and who currently uses it.

The secondary market for used business equipment is well established. Equipment dealers do business in just about any kind of machinery a company can require. As a result, knowledgeable dealers have a pretty good idea of what a given machine is worth.

A company can make a choice of getting a new piece of equipment or finding a used machine that is cost effective and can perform the same function. The comparison boils down to the age, condition, and utility relative to the price of new versus used equipment.

If you are valuing business assets, the first stop should be a few equipment dealers. These intermediaries are usually happy to provide pricing information for free because the inquiries keep them abreast of who and why uses the machinery. This could generate a useful contact for future business deals.

Equipment auctions are another source of pricing information. When businesses are dissolved, their assets go up for sale. The prices paid at such auctions offer you direct evidence of what the market values for similar equipment are. You can even trace the age of sold machines based on the model and serial number information published by the auctioneer.

Just as with the company as a whole, market values of business assets can change over time. Be sure to pay attention to the timing and relevance of comparable sales when working out the values of your company’s machinery and equipment.

Figuring out the actual values of business assets is a common task in business appraisals. Pick up the property records in a typical company, and you are looking at the book values. Sounds easy, right?

Welcome to the real world. The fact is that business assets can and do disappear, while being on the books. On the other hand, some valuable assets can be in use while not on the books at all.

Don’t expect that this difference comes out in the wash. Your accountant may want to offset such imbalances, but two wrongs don’t make it right. How do business assets wind up on the company’s books? Usually, your accountant keeps records of business assets using their original cost of purchase less depreciation.

What this book value does not represent is the true fair market value (FMV) of the asset. To make matters even more interesting, the fair market value can be estimated on the premise of the asset in use or in exchange. The first assumption is that the asset will continue being used in business operations. The second is that the asset will be offered for sale. The value may differ by quite a bit.

The key point is that the price you paid for a piece of equipment or software application years ago may bear no resemblance to what the asset is worth today. Technological obsolescence has really changed the game in asset valuation. Just because a custom software cost you, say, $100,000 in 2000 does not mean its value is anywhere near that today.

Purchase price allocation calls for business asset valuation

Even so, there are examples in business appraisals when current fair market values of some business assets are close to their book values. This is more likely to be the case if you are valuing the entire company and the assets are expected to be in use. If the business is offered for sale, purchase price allocation across the assets is one scenario when accurate asset valuation is needed.

Market value of business assets – another perspective

If the company plans to divest of some of its assets, you may find that the market place has a very different idea of what these assets are worth. This comes up when business assets are viewed as a collateral against a bank loan. Your lender is not interested in using the assets. Instead, the likely selling price in the event your company defaults is important.

Liquidation value – when assets are sold at an auction

The appraisers call this the liquidation value. It is established at an auction attended by the equipment brokers or other companies looking to get usable assets at a discount. You can bet on the selling prices being lower than the book value in these situations.

Does the value of a company depend on which country it operates in? The answer is yes, and here is why.

Business value is about risk and return. In other words, what makes a business valuable is how much money it makes given an acceptable level of risk. Investors, including business owners, look to put their money into business ventures that promise reasonable returns, both on their money and of their original investment.

Why business values differ by country

When sizing up business risk, the country’s economic and political conditions matter. Consider operating a company in a well run, developed economy such as Western Europe or North America. Political situation and the laws governing commerce are well understood and enforced. Financial markets are highly efficient and liquid. If you invest in a public company, you can unload your holdings in a few moments and move your money into a different investment.

The situation in less developed or politically troubled countries may be very different. The rule of law may be confusing or hard to discern. Exporting your money may well be fraught with difficulties or be very expensive. Bribes and protection rackets could plague the unwary investors. Your erstwhile business partners could turn out to be plain crooks.

Global financial markets abhor such instability. If the investors as a whole see systemic problems in a given country, they usually vote with their feet and take their investments to safer havens.

If you are adventurous, you may give investment in an emerging economy a shot. After all, risk and reward go together.

Unsurprisingly, the global investment community has a way to assess just how risky a business investment is in a given country. Consider how the discount rate for business valuation is built up. This discount rate captures the risk of your business investment. Note the equity risk premium, or ERP for short, in the equation.

Equity risk premium and country risk premium

For advanced, stable economies such as the USA or Western Europe, the ERP is measured by the returns on a major equities index, such as Standard and Poor 500 (S & P 500). The countries rated by the major credit agencies at the top of the scale get the Aaa rating. What this means is that investing in such countries is about as good a bet as investing in the broad portfolio of companies covered by the S & P 500 index.

Put differently, business investment in the USA, Canada, or Germany is no more risky than the equities market as a whole. Such advanced economies do not have any additional risk premium by country.

However, business values in less developed or stable countries is more risky. If you choose to invest in a company in many South American or Middle Eastern countries, your investment carries an additional country risk premium. How high the premium is depends on the risk spread of the particular country.

Example: business values in advanced vs developing countries

How does this country risk premium affect business values? Lets take an example of two companies, each generating $300,000 in net cash flows and growing at an annual rate of 5.47%. Both companies are debt free, so their cost of capital is just the equity discount or cap rate.

Let’s further assume that both companies are small, under $50M in market capitalization, and offer professional engineering services. The first company, based in the USA, has the equity discount rate made up of these parts:

Risk Element Risk Value, %
Risk free rate (based on US 10 year Treasury yields) 2.5%
Equity risk premium 5.7%
Country risk premium 0%
Small company size premium 11.59%
Industry risk premium 0.46%
Company specific risk premium (CSRP) 4.1%
Equity Discount Rate 24.35%

This gives the total equity discount rate of 24.35% and capitalization rate (cap rate) of 18.89%.

The second company in our example is based in Argentina, the country rated B3 by Moody’s. The country risk premium is around 9.3%, which gives us the total discount rate of 33.65% and cap rate of 28.19%.

Difference in business valuation by country

We next use the constant growth direct capitalization business valuation method to figure out what each company is worth. Remember, the only difference in this scenario is the country risk premium. Here are the results:

Business value of the US-based company

Business value: $1,675,230

Business value of the Argentina-based company

Business value: $1,122,506

As you can see, the difference in business value is considerable. Given a choice, any rational investor would go for the US company due to its lower risk. The Argentina based company would have to throw off more cash increasing its returns in order to compensate the investors for its higher risk.

Whether you are buying or selling a private business, establishing its market value is critical to a successful transaction. Depending on which side of the transaction you are, you may need business valuation for these reasons:

  • Determine a reasonable selling price
  • Support your asking price
  • Screen businesses for sale to select promising acquisition targets
  • As a reality check in a business acquisition negotiation

Finding the right business selling price

In the minds of business owners, the best selling price is what meets their personal or business goals. It may be a retirement package or cash needed to get into a new venture.

The point to remember is the actual value of a business has nothing to do with the owners’ goals. It is an economic concept that rests on the business financial and operational outlook. Even historic performance is of little value except as a guide for estimation of the business future prospects.

If your business valuation disappoints, there is work to be done before the business goes on the market. You would need to review the key business value drivers and see what you can do to increase the valuation in order to meet your exit strategy objectives.

Increasing business earnings, putting a professional management team in place, or reducing key customer concentration can all go a long way toward increasing your business worth as well as making the company a more desirable acquisition target.

Is the asking price right?

No other piece of the business for sale puzzle causes more contention than the asking price. Sellers want the highest price possible, while buyers look to get the business on the cheap.

In a business sale, a reasonable price and terms will make or break a deal. A solid business valuation is your ticket to getting the negotiation off on the right foot. A business selling price that is backed by careful analysis is far more likely to lead to a successful deal.

Screening business for sale targets

One way to avoid the frustration of endless haggling is to screen business for sale listings. Doing this quickly and efficiently is the sure way to avoid fruitless debates with the sellers who refuse to budge. You can run quick valuation calculations, comparing the target companies to the actual selling prices, or estimating the multiple of discretionary earnings the seller expects.

If the target looks overpriced, consider moving on to more attractive opportunities.

Price justification – the reality check of business selling price

If you ever saw a business offering memo prepared by a good business broker, the suggested price and terms are usually included. The question is whether the deal matches the needs of both the buyer and the seller.

Such deal checks are important as they let both parties know what terms are acceptable. Regardless of the business valuation result, a business sale must address the needs of the actual buyer and seller. No two buyers have the same expectation of return on their investment, the same skill set or ability to recruit key employees. In addition, financial strength of the buyer can make a lot of difference as to the amount of down payment or ability to raise a loan to fund the business sale.