littlebook The Little Book of Valuation

Characteristics of financial service firms

            There are many dimensions on which financial service firms differ from other firms in the market. In this section, we will focus on four key differences and look at why these differences can create estimation issues in valuation. The first is that many categories (albeit not all) of financial service firms operate under strict regulatory constraints on how they run their businesses and how much capital they need to set aside to keep operating. The second is that accounting rules for recording earnings and asset value at financial service firms are at variance with accounting rules for the rest of the market. The third is that debt for a financial service firm is more akin to raw material than to a source of capital; the notion of cost of capital and enterprise value may be meaningless as a consequence. The final factor is that the defining reinvestment (net capital expenditures and working capital) for a bank or insurance company may be not just difficult, but impossible, and cash flows cannot be computed.

The Regulatory Overlay

Financial service firms are heavily regulated all over the world, though the extent of the regulation varies from country to country. In general, these regulations take three forms. First, banks and insurance companies are required to maintain regulatory capital ratios, computed based upon the book value of equity and their operations, to ensure that they do not expand beyond their means and put their claimholders or depositors at risk. Second, financial service firms are often constrained in terms of where they can invest their funds. For instance, until a decade ago, the Glass-Steagall Act in the United States restricted commercial banks from investment banking activities as well as from taking active equity positions in non-financial service firms. Third, the entry of new firms into the business is often controlled by the regulatory authorities, as are mergers between existing firms.

            Why does this matter? From a valuation perspective, assumptions about growth are linked to assumptions about reinvestment. With financial service firms, these assumptions have to be scrutinized to ensure that they pass regulatory constraints. There might also be implications for how we measure risk at financial service firms. If regulatory restrictions are changing or are expected to change, it adds a layer of uncertainty (risk) to the future, which can have an effect on value. Put more simply, to value banks, insurance companies and investment banks, we have to be aware of the regulatory structure that governs them.

Differences in Accounting Rules

            The accounting rules used to measure earnings and record book value are different for financial service firms than the rest of the market, for two reasons. The first is that the assets of financial service firms tend to be financial instruments (bonds, securitized obligations) that often have an active market place. Not surprisingly, marking assets to market value has been an established practice in financial service firms, well before other firms even started talking about fair value accounting. The second is that the nature of operations for a financial service firm is such that long periods of profitability are interspersed with short periods of large losses; accounting standard have been developed to counter this tendency and create smoother earnings.

a.     Mark to Market: If the new trend in accounting is towards recording assets at fair value (rather than original costs), financial service firms operate as a laboratory for this experiment. After all, accounting rules for banks, insurance companies and investment banks have required that assets be recorded at fair value for more than a decade, based upon the argument that most of a bankÕs assets are traded, have market prices and therefore do not require too many subjective judgments. In general, the assets of banks and insurance companies tend to be securities, many of which are publicly traded.  Since the market price is observable for many of these investments, accounting rules have tilted towards using market value (actual of estimated) for these assets.  To the extent that some or a significant portion of the assets of a financial service firms are marked to market, and the assets of most non-financial service firms are not, we fact two problems. The first is in comparing ratios based upon book value (both market to book ratios like price to book and accounting ratios like return on equity) across financial and non-financial service firms. The second is in interpreting these ratios, once computed. While the return on equity for a non-financial service firm can be considered a measure of return earned on equity invested originally in assets, the same cannot be said about return on equity at financial service firms, where the book equity measures not what was originally invested in assets but an updated market value.

b.     Loss Provisions and smoothing out earnings: Consider a bank that makes money the old fashioned way – by taking in funds from depositors and lending these funds out to individuals and corporations at higher rates. While the rate charged to lenders will be higher than that promised to depositors, the risk that the bank faces is that lenders may default, and the rate at which they default will vary widely over time – low during good economic times and high during economic downturns. Rather than write off the bad loans, as they occur, banks usually create provisions for losses that average out losses over time and charge this amount against earnings every year.  Though this practice is logical, there is a catch, insofar as the bank is given the responsibility of making the loan loss assessment. A conservative bank will set aside more for loan losses, given a loan portfolio, than a more aggressive bank, and this will lead to the latter reporting higher profits during good times.

Debt and Equity

            In the financial balance sheet that we used to describe firms, there are only two ways to raise funds to finance a business – debt and equity. While this is true for both all firms, financial service firms differ from non-financial service firms on three dimensions:

a. Debt is raw material, not capital: When we talk about capital for non-financial service firms, we tend to talk about both debt and equity. A firm raises funds from both equity investor and bondholders (and banks) and uses these funds to make its investments. When we value the firm, we value the value of the assets owned by the firm, rather than just the value of its equity. With a financial service firm, debt has a different connotation. Rather than view debt as a source of capital, most financial service firms seem to view it as a raw material. In other words, debt is to a bank what steel is to a manufacturing company, something to be molded into other products which can then be sold at a higher price and yield a profit. Consequently, capital at financial service firms seems to be narrowly defined as including only equity capital. This definition of capital is reinforced by the regulatory authorities, who evaluate the equity capital ratios of banks and insurance firms.

b. Defining Debt: The definition of what comprises debt also is murkier with a financial service firm than it is with a non-financial service firm. For instance, should deposits made by customers into their checking accounts at a bank be treated as debt by that bank? Especially on interest-bearing checking accounts, there is little distinction between a deposit and debt issued by the bank. If we do categorize this as debt, the operating income for a bank should be measured prior to interest paid to depositors, which would be problematic since interest expenses are usually the biggest single expense item for a bank.

c. Degree of financial leverage: Even if we can define debt as a source of capital and can measure it precisely, there is a final dimension on which financial service firms differ from other firms. They tend to use more debt in funding their businesses and thus have higher financial leverage than most other firms. While there are good reasons that can be offered for why they have been able to do this historically - more predictable earnings and the regulatory framework are two that are commonly cited – there are consequences for valuation. Since equity is a sliver of the overall value of a financial service firm, small changes in the value of the firmÕs assets can translate into big swings in equity value.

Estimating cash flows is difficult

            We noted earlier that financial service firms are constrained by regulation in both where they invest their funds and how much they invest. If, as we have so far in this book, define reinvestment as necessary for future growth, there are problems associated with measuring reinvestment with financial service firms. Note that, we consider two items in reinvestment – net capital expenditures and working capital. Unfortunately, measuring either of these items at a financial service firm can be problematic.

Consider net capital expenditures first. Unlike manufacturing firms that invest in plant, equipment and other fixed assets, financial service firms invest primarily in intangible assets such as brand name and human capital. Consequently, their investments for future growth often are categorized as operating expenses in accounting statements. Not surprisingly, the statement of cash flows to a bank show little or no capital expenditures and correspondingly low depreciation. With working capital, we run into a different problem. If we define working capital as the difference between current assets and current liabilities, a large proportion of a bankÕs balance sheet would fall into one or the other of these categories. Changes in this number can be both large and volatile and may have no relationship to reinvestment for future growth.

            As a result of this difficulty in measuring reinvestment, we run into two practical problems in valuing these firms. The first is that we cannot estimate cash flows without estimating reinvestment. In other words, if we cannot identify how much a company is reinvesting for future growth, we cannot identify cash flows either. The second is that estimating expected future growth becomes more difficult, if the reinvestment rate cannot be measured.