Amazon free cash flow – an update

Last year we published an article about the calculation of free cash flow and the alternative approaches used by Amazon. That original article is still very relevant; recent accounting changes have prompted us to publish an update.

New accounting rules effective in 2019 change and improve the data available to you when making the adjustments we advocate. We explain these changes, provide updated free cash flow measures for Amazon based upon their 2019 financial statements, and consider the relevance of maintenance and growth capex in the analysis of free cash flow.

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In search of free cash flow – Amazon

Amazon provides investors with three alternative calculations of a free cash flow metric. For 2018 these range from $8.4bn to $19.4bn. In contrast our preferred approach gives a negative free cash flow of $3.4bn. What explains these material differences?

The disclosures by Amazon about its free cash flow measures are good and the calculations go further than many other companies. However, in our view important components are missing. We explain our additional adjustments in respect of leased assets and stock-based compensation.

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Why you should ‘forward price’ valuation multiples

The number of alternative valuation multiples can seem endless. Many different metrics, such as EBITDA and EPS, can be combined with different measures of value, such as the stock price and enterprise value. But there is a further variation that often seems to be overlooked – the pricing basis.

Valuation multiples can be based on a historical price (or EV), a current price, or the less commonly used forward price. We advocate greater use of forward priced multiples. They are more comparable and relevant for relative valuation comparisons and provide a better basis for terminal values in DCF analysis.

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Leasing and leverage – credit rating agencies disagree

Rating agency Fitch recently announced its approach to dealing with the new lease accounting in its credit metrics. Their approach is at odds with that already published by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. Of particular interest is the way the rating agencies deal with the differences between IFRS and US GAAP.

We explain the different approaches of the rating agencies, how we think investors should calculate key metrics, such as leverage and cash flow, and the importance of considering the impact of leasing on operating leverage and business flexibility.

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Leverage and cash flow effects of supply chain finance

Supply chain finance, such as factoring and reverse factoring, are often labelled as tools used by companies in financial distress. Although we believe they are valid financing techniques, the reporting of these arrangements can affect leverage and cash flow. Due to poor disclosure you may not even know about it. 

Debt finance may not appear as debt in the balance sheet.  Operating cash flows may not include payments for some operating expenses or may be distorted by changes in financing being classified as operating. We explain how supply chain finance works and how you may need to adjust key metrics.

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When cash flows should include ‘non-cash flows’

The problem with cash flow statements is that they only include cash flows. This may seem odd, given that the purpose of cash flow statements is simply to report cash movements. However, most cash flow analysis is focused on sub-totals and it is here that offsetting flows arising from non-cash transactions become important.

We explain why we believe adjustments to cash flow sub-totals are required and for which transactions you should adjust.

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Linking value drivers and enterprise value multiples

Target valuation multiples that are implied by key value drivers are a great way to better understand equity valuation and how the characteristics of a company affect value. The approach incorporates the same links with underlying value drivers on which DCF is based, but in a simplified way that is more intuitive than a full DCF model.

Our target multiple model can be used to estimate a deserved valuation multiple for a company, sector or index, to reverse engineer returns or growth implied by a current market valuation multiple and to derive a terminal value multiple in DCF analysis.

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