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Technical Accounting: Demystifying EBITDA

Last updated: 24 Jun 2024 09:00 Posted in: AIA

Since the 1990s, the use of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) as a measure of profitability has gained in popularity, being regarded by analysts and investors alike as a simple and straightforward metric for evaluating the operating profitability of a company.

The purpose of EBITDA is to offer a clearer view of the ability of a company to generate cash from its primary business activities. While EBITDA highlights core earnings, failure to account for these expenses results in an incomplete depiction of true cost structure and profitability.

Limitations of EBITDA

This limitation could potentially lead to misguided investment decisions. For instance, interest expenses represent the cost of borrowed capital, and excluding them can distort the actual profitability, especially for highly leveraged companies. Similarly, depreciation and amortization expenses reflect the gradual wear and tear of tangible and intangible assets, respectively. Failing to consider them can result in an inflated sense of profitability.

Take the case of a technology company in the Philippines called Philweb. In its financial report for the first nine months of 2023, the company reported that its EBITDA was P50.9 million, representing 8% of its total revenues. However, upon deducting its depreciation, interest and income taxes, the bottom line results in a net loss of P13.6 million.

EBITDA is also often mistaken as a measure of cash flow because it ignores the cash flows associated with changes in working capital, which are important for assessing a company’s liquidity and long-term sustainability.

Changes in working capital, such as inventory levels, accounts receivable and accounts payable, impact a company’s cash flow and its ability to meet short-term obligations. By neglecting these factors, EBITDA fails to capture the cash flow dynamics that underpin financial stability.

For example, if we examine the financial report of a Philippine real estate company, Cebu Landmasters, as of September 2023, its EBITDA stood at P4.7 billion, accounting for 36.5% of its total revenues. However, when we factor in the changes in its working capital, we find its operating cash flows for the period declining to negative P808 million.

Moreover, EBITDA is often used to assess how easily a company can pay the interest of its outstanding debt in the form of the EBITDA-to-interest coverage ratio. In reality, when a company has significant capital expenditures, it means that it needs to allocate a substantial amount of its cash flow toward these investments.

This allocation of cash reduces the available funds that the company can use for other purposes, such as debt service, which involves making interest payments on outstanding debt.

Even if the EBITDA-to-interest expense multiple of a company appears favourable, indicating that it generates enough earnings to cover its interest costs, neglecting the impact of capital expenditures can be misleading. The company may have limited cash available for debt service after accounting for the necessary investments in its operations.

Assessing a company’s value

Investors rely on financial metrics like EBITDA to assess the attractiveness of a company for investment. When EBITDA fails to account for depreciation and interest expenses, investors may get the wrong impression that the company is more profitable than it actually is.

One alternative metric for assessing a company’s value is the enterprise value-to-EBITDA ratio. This ratio considers both residual earnings and cash flows generated by the entire business, providing a holistic perspective on a company’s valuation. However, selecting stocks solely based on ratio comparisons may not be advisable, as EBITDA overlooks financial risks and capital requirements. If we consider the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio as a pricing multiple that determines the value of a firm’s equity, then there is another multiple that determines the overall worth of the firm. This multiple is known as the enterprise value‑to-EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) ratio.

The enterprise value-to-EBITDA ratio

The rationale behind using this ratio is that investors not only pay for the residual earnings of the company but also for the cash flows generated by the entire business. To calculate the EV of a company, we simply add the market value of its equity and the book value of its net debt.

On the other hand, EBITDA (which stands for earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) represents the cash earnings of the company. EBITDA is a broad measure of cash flows and helps to assess the earnings potential of a company by adding back its financing costs and non-cash expenses.

The EV/EBITDA ratio has gained popularity among market analysts and fund managers because it allows them to price losing companies that cannot be valued using the P/E ratio. It indicates the number of years it would take for the company to generate enough cash earnings to reach its current enterprise value. Similar to the P/E ratio, a lower EV/EBITDA ratio is considered more favourable. However, it is important to note that selecting stocks solely based on comparing ratios may not be advisable because EBITDA also fails to account for annual capital expenditures and working capital requirements, which could lead to an overstatement of the company’s free cash flows.

For example, the Philippine telecom company, PLDT, has an enterprise value (EV) to EBITDA multiple of 5.1 times, which is lower than the market average of 7.9 times, indicating that it is relatively under-priced.

But when we factor in the interest expenses and depreciation, PLDT appears overpriced compared with the market, with a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 25.9 times, nearly double the market average of 13 times. Capital intensive companies often require substantial investments in infrastructure, equipment and technology to maintain operations and propel growth.

Factors in valuation

By ignoring depreciation, EBITDA fails to account for the ongoing capital requirements necessary to replace aging assets. As a result, investors may underestimate the future capital needs of the company, leading to underinvestment and potential operational challenges down the line.

Now, in valuation, there are three factors that determine the value of a company. These are risk, cash flows and growth. By incorporating these factors, we can calculate the intrinsic EV/EBITDA ratio of a company. We can compute this by first determining the free cash flow as a percentage of EBITDA and then dividing this value by its associated risk factor. The risk factor is computed by the difference between the company’s cost of capital and its long-term growth rate.

So, for example, based on the 2023 financials, the Philippine port operator ICTSI’s free cash flow as a percentage of EBITDA amounted to about 59.5%. If we divide this value by the difference between its cost of capital and long-term growth, which is 5.4%, we will arrive at its intrinsic EV/EBITDA ratio of 11.1 times. If we compare this to its actual EV/EBITDA ratio of 7.2 times, we will find that the stock is undervalued by 35%.

Following this model, we observe that the ideal EV/EBITDA ratio of a stock increases when its free cash flow as a percentage of EBITDA rises or when its cost of capital decreases.

Historically, both free cash flows and cost of capital have a significant 22% correlation with the EV/EBITDA ratio. The free cash flow of a company, which is calculated by subtracting its capital expenditures from its operating cash flows, can strongly influence the target EV/EBITDA ratio of a stock.

Cash flows

While any company, whether profitable or not, can generate positive EBITDA, not all companies can consistently generate free cash flows. Some companies may not have sufficient operating cash flows to fund their capital expenditures, resulting in negative free cash flows. Others may not even have positive operating cash flows to start with if they are struggling with their sales growth and profitability.

About one-third of the stocks in the Philippine Stock Exchange index are spending more on their capital expenditures than what their operating cash flows could finance, resulting in negative free cash flows. When a company has negative free cash flow, it means that it needs to borrow more money to finance its deficit, increasing its riskiness and overvaluation.

For reference, the average free cash flow in the market is 23.3% of EBITDA, while the median EV/EBITDA ratio is 5.58 times. But similar to P/E ratios, pricing a stock based on the EV/EBITDA ratio goes beyond simple ratio comparisons because it requires a thorough understanding of the underlying fundamentals of the company. To assess the quality of a stock based on the EV/EBITDA ratio perspective, one has to evaluate and ask questions like how much free cash flows can the company generate from its EBITDA? How does the current interest rate outlook affect the company’s cost of capital? What are the growth prospects of the company?

In conclusion

Understanding the EV/EBITDA ratio can provide a holistic perspective on a company’s valuation, but by factoring in risk, cash flows and growth, we can make more informed decisions by avoiding the pitfalls of relying solely on traditional valuation metrics. Despite its flaws, EBITDA is still widely used and accepted in financial analysis because it’s easy to understand and calculate.

It may seem like a simple and helpful metric for assessing performance, but it has significant limitations that make it unreliable. It is therefore important to be cautious and not rely solely on EBITDA when evaluating a company.

Investors and analysts should approach EBITDA with scepticism and consider other important factors like debt levels, tax exposures and asset depreciation to get a better understanding of the financial situation of a company. By understanding the limitations of EBITDA and considering a broader range of financial factors, investors can make more informed judgments and avoid being deceived by its apparent simplicity.


Author biography

Henry Ong is president of the National Institute of Accounting Technicians, the largest professional body of accounting technicians and bookkeepers in the Philippines.

"When EBITDA fails to account for depreciation and interest expenses, investors may get the wrong impression that the company is more profitable than it actually is."

Henry Ong, President of the National Institute of Accounting Technicians