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Business valuation

A business valuation determines the price that a hypothetical buyer would pay for a business under a given set of circumstances.

The valuation of a business is a complex and time-consuming undertaking and yet the volume of business valuations being performed each year is increasing significantly. A leading cause of this growth in volume is the increasing use of mergers and acquisitions as vehicles for corporate growth. Business valuations are frequently used in setting the price for a business that is being bought or sold. Another reason for the growth in the volume of business valuations has been their increasing use in areas other than supporting merger and acquisition transactions. For example, business valuations are now being used by financial institutions to determine the amount of credit that should be extended to a company, by courts in determining litigation settlement amounts and by investors in evaluating the performance of company management.

In most cases, a business valuation is completed by an appraiser or a Certified Public Accountant (hereinafter, appraiser) using a combination of judgment, experience and an understanding of generally accepted valuation principles. The two primary types of business valuations that are widely used an d accepted are income valuation and asset valuations. Market valuations are also used in some cases but their use is restricted because of the difficulty inherent in trying to compare two different companies.

Income valuations are based on the premise that the current value of a business is a function of the future value that an investor can expect to receive from purchasing all or part of the business. Income valuations are the most widely used type of valuation. They are generally used for valuing businesses that are expected to continue operating for the foreseeable future. In these valuations the expected returns from investing in the business and the risks associated with receiving the expected returns are evaluated by the appraiser. The appraiser then determines the value whereby a hypothetical buyer would receive a sufficient return on the investment to compensate the buyer for the risk associated with receiving the expected returns. Income valuation methods include the capitalization of earnings method, the discounted future income method, the discounted cash flow method, the economic income method and other formula methods. Asset valuations consider the business to be a collection of assets which have an intrinsic value to a third party in an asset sale. Asset valuations are typically used for businesses that are ceasing operation and for specific type of businesses such as holding companies and investment companies. Asset valuation methods include the book value method, the adjusted book value method, the economic balance sheet method and the liquidation method.

Market valuations are used to place a value on one business by using valuations that have been established for comparable businesses in either a public stock market or a recent transaction. This method is difficult to use properly because no two companies are exactly the same and no two transactions are completed for the exact same reasons. Market valuation methods include the price to earnings method, the comparable sales method, industry valuation methods and the comparable investment method.

When performing a business valuation, the appraiser is generally free to select the valuation type and method (or some combination of the methods) in determining the business value. Under the current procedures, there is no correct answer, there is only the best possible informed guess for any given business valuation. There are several difficulties inherent in this approach. First, the reliance on informed guessing places a heavy reliance on the knowledge and experience of the appraiser. The recent increase in the need for business valuations has strained the capacity of existing appraisal organizations. As a result, the average experience level of those performing the valuations has decreased. The situation is even worse for many segments of the American economy where experienced appraisers don't exist because the industries are too new. Another drawback of the current procedures for completing a valuation is that the appraiser is typically retained and paid by a party to a proposed transaction. It is difficult in this situation to be certain that the valuation opinion is unbiased and fair. Given the appraiser's wide latitude for selecting the method, the large variability of experience levels in the industry and the high likelihood of appraiser bias, it is not surprising that it is generally very difficult to compare the valuations of two different appraisers--even for the same business. These limitations in turn serve to seriously diminish the usefulness of business valuations to business managers, business owners and financial institutions.

The usefulness of business valuations to business owners and managers is limited for another reason--valuations typically determine only the value of the business as a whole. To provide information that would be useful in improving the business, the valuation would have to furnish supporting detail that would highlight the value of different elements of the business. An operating manager would then be able to use a series of business valuations to identify elements within a business that have been decreasing in value. This information could also be used to identify corrective action programs and to track the progress that these programs have made in increasing business value. This same information could also be used to identify elements that are contributing to an increase in business value. This information could be used to identify elements where increased levels of investment would have a significant favorable impact on the overall health of the business.

Another limitation of the current methodology is that financial statements and accounting records have traditionally provided the basis for most business valuations. Appraisers generally spend a great deal of time extracting, aggregating, verifying and interpreting the information from accounting systems as part of the valuation process. Accounting records do have the advantage of being prepared in a generally unbiased manner using the consistent framework of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (hereinafter, GAAP). Unfortunately, these accounting statements have proved to be increasingly inadequate for use in evaluating the financial performance of modem companies.

Many have noted that traditional accounting systems are driving information-age managers to make the wrong decisions and the wrong investments. Accounting systems are "wrong" for one simple reason, they track tangible assets while ignoring intangible assets. Intangible assets such as the skills of the workers, intellectual property, business infrastructure, databases, and relationships with customers and suppliers are not measured with current accounting systems. This oversight is critical because in the present economy the success of an enterprise is determined more by its ability to use its intangible assets than by its ability to amass and control the physical ones that are tracked by traditional accounting systems.

The recent experience of several of the most important companies in the U.S. economy, IBM, General Motors and DEC, illustrates the problems that can arise when intangible asset information is omitted from corporate financial statements. All three were all showing large profits using current accounting systems while their businesses were falling apart If they had been forced to take write-offs when the declines in intangible assets were occurring, the problems would have been visible to the market and management would have been forced to act on them much sooner. These deficiencies of traditional accounting systems are particularly noticeable in high technology companies that are highly valued for their intangible assets and their options to enter new markets rather than their tangible assets.

The accounting profession itself recognizes the limitations of traditional accounting systems. A group of senior financial executives, educators and consultants that had been asked to map the future of financial management by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) recently concluded that:

a) Operating managers will continue to lose confidence in traditional financial reporting systems,

b) The motto of CFOs in the future will likely be "close enough is good enough", and

c) The traditional financial report will never again be used as the exclusive basis for any business decisions.

The deficiency of traditional accounting systems is also one of the root causes of the short term focus of many American firms. Because traditional accounting methods ignore intangible assets, expenditures that develop a market or expand the capabilities of an organization are generally shown as expenses that only decrease the current period profit. For example, an expenditure for technical training which increases the value of an employee to an enterprise is an expense while an expenditure to refurbish a piece of furniture is capitalized as an asset.

The dependence on accounting records for valuing business enterprises has to some extent been a matter of simple convenience. Because corporations are required to maintain financial records for tax purposes, accounting statements are available for virtually every company. At the same time, the high cost of data storage has until recently prevented the more detailed information required for valuing intangibles from being readily available. In a similar manner, the absence of integrated corporate databases within corporations and the home-grown nature of most corporate systems has until recently made it difficult to compare similar data from different firms.

The lack of a consistent, well accepted, realistic method for measuring all the elements of business value also prevents some firms from receiving the financing they need to grow. Most banks and lending institutions focus on book value when evaluating the credit worthiness of a business seeking funds. As stated previously, the value of many high technology firms lies primarily in intangible assets and growth options that aren't visible under traditional definitions of accounting book value. As a result, these businesses generally aren't eligible to receive capital from traditional lending sources, even though their financial prospects are generally far superior to those of companies with much higher tangible book values.

In light of the preceding discussion, it is clear that it would be advantageous to have an automated financial system that measured the financial performance of all the elements of business value for a given enterprise. Ideally, this system would be capable of generating detailed valuations for businesses in new industries.

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