Free Cash Flow is considered one of the most important parameters to measure a companys earnings power by value investors because it is not subject to estimates of Depreciation, Depletion and Amortization (DDA). However, when we look at the Free Cash Flow, we should look from a long term perspective, because any years Free Cash Flow can be drastically affected by the spending on Property, Plant, & Equipment (PPE) of the business in that year. Over the long term, Free Cash Flow should give pretty good picture on the real earnings power of the company.
Free Cash Flow is very close to Warren Buffetts definition of Owners Earnings, except that in Warren Buffetts Owners Earnings, the spending for Property, Plant, and Equipment is only for maintenance (replacement), while in the Free Cash Flow calculation, the cost of new Property, Plant, and Equipment due to business expansion is also deducted. There, Free Cash Flow is more conservative than Owners Earnings.
In Don Yacktmans calculation of forward rate of return, he uses Free Cash Flow for the calculation. Yacktman explained the forward rate of return concept in detail in his interview with GuruFocus. Yacktman defines forward rate of return as the normalized free cash flow yield plus real growth plus inflation.
This is what Yacktman said in his March 2012 interview - when the S&P 500 was at 1400:
If the business is stable, this calculation is fairly straightforward. For instance, on the S&P 500 we would normalize earnings. We would then calculate what percentage of those earnings are not reinvested in the underlying businesses and are therefore free. Historically, for the S&P 500, this has been just under 50% of earnings. Currently, we expect the S&P to earn about 70 on a normalized basis, a number which is far below reported earnings due to our adjusting for record high profit margins. $70 X ½ / 1400 gives you a normalized free cash flow yield of approximately 2.5%.
The historical real growth rate of the S&P 500 (companies) is about 1.5%. Assuming an inflation rate of 2.5%, the forward rate of return on an investment in the S&P 500 is about 6.5% today (2.5% free cash flow yield plus 1.5% real growth plus 2.5% inflation).
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