While there are many metrics that can be used to evaluate the value of a company, free cash flow (FCF) is particularly useful when it comes to assessing financial health. FCF is the excess cash generated by a company after accounting for the cost of operations and capital expenditures. FCF may offer a clearer picture of a company’s profitability, since it is more difficult to manipulate than other measures such as net income.
Importantly, companies with plenty of FCF have the flexibility to pay cash dividends, buy back stock, pay down debt and pursue growth opportunities—all important undertakings from an investor's perspective.
The S&P 500 Sector-Neutral FCF Index is designed to track companies within the S&P 500 that exhibit high FCF yield relative to other companies within the same GICS® sector. By focusing on FCF yield, the index measures companies’ FCF generation relative to their value. Hence, it provides a means to track companies generating attractive levels of FCF that may be undervalued.
1. What is FCF?
Free Cash Flow = Net Cash from Operating Activities minus Capital Expenditures
FCF represents the amount of cash generated by a business (i.e., operating cash flow) over a given period after accounting for cash outflows to support operations and to maintain capital assets. Simply put, it is the excess cash that a company generates after accounting for the expenses to run the business.
2. Why is FCF an important metric for assessing a company?
FCF offers a deeper understanding into the financial health of a company, since it shows the amount of cash that a company receives after meeting its obligations. A company with ample FCF has the flexibility to increase shareholder value through strategic investments and acquisitions. Furthermore, FCF can be used to increase shareholder yield via cash dividends, buybacks and paying down of debt.
Companies producing plenty of FCF tend to be higher quality and may be better positioned to weather periods of market stress, as shown historically. Furthermore, in today’s environment of high interest rates, having a healthy cash flow has become particularly important since it reduces a company’s reliance on debt markets to finance business operations.
3. What potential improvements does FCF offer over other measures of profitability such as net income?
FCF differs from net income, which is used to calculate other popular valuation metrics such as the price-to-earnings ratio, since it focuses solely on cash transactions and is thus harder to manipulate. Under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and accrual accounting, management is afforded more flexibility when recording sales and expenses. While FCF can still be manipulated (albeit to a lesser degree), it measures the exact amount of excess cash that was generated by the company in a given period. This is important because the capital returned via dividends or buybacks can only be funded with cash and not an accounting term such as “net income.”