Business value cannot be precisely determined, Klarman asserts. Not only do a number of assumptions go into a business valuation, but relevant macro and micro economic factors are constantly changing, making a precise valuation impossible. Although anyone with a calculator or a spreadsheet can calculate a net present value of future cash flows, the precise values calculated are only as accurate as the underlying assumptions.
Klarman argues that investors should instead make use of ranges of values, and in some cases, of applying a base value. He quotes Ben Graham as follows:
The essential point is that security analysis does not seek to determine exactly what is the intrinsic value of a given security. It needs only to establish that the value is adequate—e.g., to pro tect a bond or to justify a stock purchase—or else that the value is considerably higher or considerably lower than the market price. For such purposes an indefinite and approximate measure of the intrinsic value may be sufficient.
Klarman discusses what he believes to be the only three ways to value a business. The first method involves finding the net present value by discounting future cash flows. Problems with this method involve trying to predict future cash flows, and determining a discount rate. Klarman argues that investors should err on the side of conservatism in making assumptions for use in net present value calculations, and even then a margin of safety should be applied.
The second method is Private Market Value. This is a multiples approach (e.g. P/E, EV/Sales) based on what business people have paid to acquire whole companies of a similar nature. The problems with this method are that comparables assume businesses are all equal, which they are not. Furthermore, exuberance can cause business people to make silly decisions. Therefore, basing your price on a price based on irrationality can lead to disaster. Klarman believes this to be the least useful of the three valuation methods he names.
Finally, Klarman discusses liquidation value as a method of valuation. A distinction must be made between a company undergoing a fire sale (i.e. it needs to liquidate immediately to pay debts) and one that can liquidate over time. Fixed assets can be difficult to value, as some thought must be given to how customized the assets are (e.g. downtown real-estate is easily sold, mining equipment may not be).
When should each method be employed? Klarman argues that they can all be used simultaneously to triangulate towards a value. In some cases, however, one might place more confidence in one method over the others. For example, liquidation value would be more useful for a company with losses that trades below book value, while net present value is more useful for a company with stable cash flows.
Klarman takes the reader through a valuation of Esco, a defense contractor. Using the methods of valuation described in the chapter, he demonstrates that Esco was trading at a severe discount, and subsequently showed that the stock price more than doubled soon after.
Finally, Klarman ends with a discussion of the failures of relying on a company's earnings per share (too easily massaged), book value (not necessarily relevant to today's value) and dividend yield (incentives of management to make yields appear attractive at the expense of the company's future).