Companys Risk vs. Project Risk

In the past module, we concentrated on calculating the returns part of the project. All our articles were focused on calculating cash flows and we saw the various special cases that arise while determining cash flows and determined how we must deal with them. This module is all about the other component i.e. risk. The cash flows are nominal figures. To determine the true value of the project, we need to find out an appropriate discount rate for our project. This article is a primer in this regard. It will clear out the first and the most prevalent confusion pertaining to discount rates.

Let’s say that we have a company “A”. At the present moment, the cost of capital for company A, with its existing projects is 12%. Company A is planning to undertake a new project. The cash flows have been determined. It is now time to discount them. What do you think? Would using a 12% discount rate be appropriate?

The answer is that it is not appropriate and here is the reason why:

Company’s Risk

A company’s risk is measured by the rate at which its cash flows are being discounted currently by the market. This is the company’s cost of capital. The important thing to realize is that this cost reflects the riskiness of the projects that have been undertaken by the company in the past. So, if company A currently has 6 projects running, this discount rate of 12% is a measure of the riskiness of those 6 projects.

Project Risk

Project risk, on the other hand, is independent of company’s risk. It doesn’t really matter if Company A has a 12% discount rate. If the new project is considerably more risky than the past projects undertaken by A then the discount rate must reflect this additional risk. The project needs to be evaluated on its own merits. The discount factor must determine the riskiness of a probable future course of action rather than that of past actions.

What Happens if We Use The 12% Discount Rate?

The general tendency is to use the past discount rate for selecting future projects. However, this is an error and could lead to at least two big consequences for the company, if not more. The two mistakes are:

  1. Firstly, since we are using a discount rate which may represent more or less risk than the project has, we may end up making the wrong choices. These wrong choices could be in two forms. We could overestimate the risk for a good project and reject it or we could underestimate the risk for a bad project and accept it. Obviously this will lead to loss of value in the long run.

  2. Secondly, since the discount rate of the new project is considered in combination with that of the old project, we would be underestimating the risk for the company as a whole. The company is nothing but a portfolio of several different projects. By using the wrong discount rate for one project, we are actually using the wrong discount rate for the company as a whole!

The bottom line therefore is that the discount rate used must represent the risk of the project and not that of the company. This distinction is very subtle but very important.

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