In my last post, I looked at the negative effects on of the threat of government expropriation (nationalization). In this one, I want to focus on the more benign (and perhaps positive) impact that governments can have the values of some companies, through subsidies in one of many forms: providing or facilitating below-market rate financing, special tax benefits, revenues or price supports and even forcing competitors to provide direct benefits to a subsidized entity.
Note that my intent in this post is not to examine the wisdom of these subsidies and whether governments should be tilting the playing field. While I do have strong views on the topic (and you can guess what they are from the subtext), I want to focus on the mechanics of how best to value businesses that benefit from these subsidies. This post was, in part, triggered by the recent news story on First Solar, where the company announced its intent to both scale back its operations and return a $30 million subsidy it had received from the German government.
Governments, through the ages, have played favorites with businesses, either providing help to their preferred companies or, in some cases, handicapping their competition. Broadly speaking, there are at least four ways in which governments can try to benefit a subset of companies:
1. "Low or no cost" financing: The cost of borrowing (debt) for a company should reflect its default risk. In some cases, governments can step in the fray and either provide or facilitate "cheap" or "below market rate" financing, ranging from grants (effectively free financing) to low-interest rate loans (Airbus) to acting as a loan guarantor with banks (Tesla). The net effect is the same: the company is able to borrow more money at lower interest rates than it otherwise would have been able to, which, in turns, lowers its overall cost of financing its operations. You can argue that bailouts are a variant on this subsidy, insofar as it offers a financial lifeline to distressed (usually too-big-to-fail) firms that otherwise would have faced default.
2. Tax holidays, credits and deductions: The tax code has long been a favored device for the government to bestow benefits on chosen sectors or companies. In some cases, this can take the form of a lower tax rate on income (than the tax rate paid by other businesses) or a tax holiday, and in others it can take the form of more generous expensing and depreciation rules. Fossil fuel companies in the US, for instance, have been allowed to expense a portion of exploration costs, granted tax credits amounting to 15% of investment costs related to enhanced oil recovery and gas pipelines can be depreciated over 15 years instead of 20 years. These benefits translate into higher after-tax cash flows (from paying less in taxes) or timing benefits on tax savings (with expensing and depreciation breaks).
A side note: One oft-used proxy of which businesses get subsidized the most is the difference between the effective tax rate paid by these businesses and the marginal tax rate. I report the average effective tax rates on my website, by sector. However, I think that the dominant factor driving effective tax rates now is not tax subsidization but foreign sales. The more revenues a company (or sector) generates from overseas (where corporate tax rates are lower), the lower the effective tax rate will be.
3. Revenue or price support (Higher and more predictable revenues): In some cases, governments step in to both stabilize and increase revenues of businesses by providing price support to companies. For instance, the US government, among others, has provided price supports for some agricultural products, such as sugar. In other cases, governments benefit firms by handicapping foreign competition and imposing tariffs on imported goods. Sometimes, government can indirectly support revenues by providing the subsidies to the customers of preferred companies; an example would be credits offered to homeowners for using solar panels on their houses.
4. Indirect subsidies: Rather than provide benefits directly to a company, the government can also force competitors to sustain the company by either paying a cash subsidy to the company or by buying its products at an arranged price. The Zero Emissions Vehicle Program, a California state mandate requiring that auto manufacturers failing to produce a certain number of zero emission vehicles buy credits from those who did, resulted in Tesla receiving millions of dollars in payments from other auto companies.
Ways of dealing with subsidies
There are two ways of dealing with subsidies. One is to build them into your discounted cash flow valuation inputs and let them flow into your estimated value. The other is to ignore subsidies in a valuation and to value subsidies separately and add them on.
1. Build into valuation
Each of the subsidies, described above, can be incorporated into a valuation input:
a. "Low cost" financing: Enter the subsidized cost of debt and/or the subsidized debt ratio into the cost of capital, which will yield a lower cost of capital and higher value. Thus, if a firm like Tesla that normally would not have been able to borrow money, since it is a risky, money losing company. and would have been all equity financed (say with a cost of equity of 11%) may be able to borrow a portion of its capital at a "low" interest rate (because of implicit or explicit government subsidization) and end up with a cost of capital of 10.8%.
b. Tax holidays, credits and deductions: Subsidies that take the form of a tax holiday or special tax rate will lower the effective tax rate and increase after-tax cash flows. To the extent that the tax subsidized operations can be kept separate from non subsidized business, the company may be able to still get the full tax benefits of borrowing. More generous expensing and depreciation rules don't increase the nominal tax benefits across time but the value of the tax benefits will increase because they occur earlier in time.
c. Revenue or price supports: These subsidies can show up in two places. First, the price support increases revenue to producers who can sell at the support price, which is higher than the market price. Second, to the extent that these subsidies make revenues more stable, they may reduce the operating risk in the business and increase value.
d. Indirect subsidies: The transfer payments from competitors will boost revenues and cash flows and increase the value of the subsidy-receiving company.
The advantage of this approach is that the subsidies then get baked into the valuation, with no need for post-valuation garnishing or augmentation. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is easy to forget that subsidies don't last forever and that the firm will eventually lose them, either because governments cannot afford them anymore or because the company loses its preferred status.
If you do decide to go this route, keep in mind at least two issues. If you build subsidies into your valuation, think through how long these subsidies will last. For instance, the "low cost" financing subsidy may cease to be one, if your company becomes a larger, more profitable entity. In addition, check to see what the value of the company would be, with no subsidies. In other words, break the company's value down into its operating value and its subsidy value.
A valuation of Tesla
To illustrate the process, let me try to value Tesla Motors, the electric car company founded by Elon Musk, one of the co-founders of Paypal. Tesla Motors got a subsidy from the US government, in the form of a Department of Energy loan facility that it utilized to borrow about $250 million in 2011, at an interest rate of 3%. (You can download my excel spreadsheets, with the valuations, if you want):
Step 1: I valued Tesla Motors, with the subsidized financing. The company's borrowing gives it a debt ratio of about 10%, which with its subsidized interest rate, results in a cost of capital of about 10.8%. The valuation, where I do assume that Tesla's revenues will climb to about $ 5 billion in 10 years and that the pre-tax operating margin will converge on 12% (much higher than the average margin of 7% across automobile companies in 2011), yields a value per share of $10.40/share.
Step 2: I valued Tesla Motors without the subsidized financing, by assuming that the firm would have to raise the debt at a market interest rate of 9% (instead of the 3% subsidized rate). The resulting value per share is $9.60.
Step 3: The interest rate subsidy can be valued at $0.80/share, the difference between the valuation with the subsidy and the valuation without.
This is the narrowest measure of the subsidy. If we expand the subsidization to include tax credits for future investments (reducing reinvestment needs for the future) and perhaps less risk (if the government supports revenues or requires competitors to pay Tesla), the value per share would increase (and so would the subsidy value). In this final valuation, I expand the Tesla valuation to include broader subsidies and generate a value per share of $18.17/share.
2. Separate valuation
In this approach, the discounted cash flow valuation is done with inputs that the firm would have had in a non-subsidized world, and the value of the subsidy is assessed separately. Thus, in the case of Tesla, you would value the company using the 12% cost of equity (or capital) that the firm would have had in a non-subsidized world, and then value the effect of the low cost financing separately. Thus, if Tesla is able to borrow money at a lower rate, as a result of the government support or backing, the savings each year from the subsidy amount to the difference between the market and the subsidized interest rates. Taking the present value of these savings over time should generate a value for the subsidy, which can then be added on to the value obtained using the non-subsidized cost of capital.
While this approach requires more detailed information on the nature of the subsidy and what the firm would have looked like in its absence, it has two benefits:
a. The analyst can value the subsidy for only the period that he or she thinks it will be offered and discount it at an appropriate rate. Thus, if Tesla has $250 million in debt at a 3% subsidized rate, when it should have been paying 9%, it is saving $15 million a year because of the subsidy (9% of 250 - 3% of 250). Assuming that the subsidy is likely to continue for only 10 years and that the only risk of not getting it is if Tesla defaults, the present value of $15 million a year for 10 years, discounted back at the unsubsidized cost of debt of 9%, yields a value today of $96.26 million.
b. If the subsidy from the government requires the company to offer something in return (build a manufacturing plant with higher cost labor), separating the effects of the subsidy from the valuation allows you to assess the costs and benefits of taking the subsidy. If the net benefit is negative, the company may be better off rejecting or returning the subsidy to the government.
Implications for investing/valuation
A company that gets significant subsidies from the government will have a higher value, in most cases, than one that does not. In some sectors, say green energy, the subsidies can account for a significant portion of the overall value of the firm (and its equity). As an investor, I have always been uncomfortable investing in these companies at prices that require the continuation of subsidies to justify the investments. Governments, especially in these times of budget constraints and sovereign defaults, are both fickle in their choice of favorites and unreliable subsidizers. Thus, if I can buy Tesla at a price that is less than its unsubsidized value, I will do so, and view the subsidies as icing on my investment cake. If, on the other hand, making money on Tesla requires me to count on the government's continuing indulgence, you can count me out. In this case, I am spared the choice, since Tesla at the prevailing stock price of $ 30 looks overvalued, even relative to the most generous subsidized value.