Investment appraisal techniques
Investment is a key part of building your business. New assets such as machinery can boost productivity, cut costs and give you a competitive edge. Investments in product development, research and development, expertise and new markets can open up exciting growth opportunities.
At the same time, you need to avoid overstretching limited financial resources or restricting your ability to pursue other options. Deciding where to focus your investment is an essential part of making the most of your potential.
This guide highlights the key financial and non-financial factors you should take into account when considering an investment. It also provides guidance on help with investment appraisal.
Financial aspects of investment appraisal
Different appraisal techniques let you assess the effects an investment will have on your cashflow. You can compare the expected return to the cost of funding and to the returns offered by other potential investments.
As well as the financial impact, your calculations should also consider any indirect effects. Identifying these soft benefits is often as important as the financial evaluation and may help your decision-making.
Benefits could include:
- greater flexibility and quality of production
- faster time-to-market resulting in a bigger market share
- improved company image, better staff morale and job satisfaction, leading to greater productivity
- quicker decisions due to better availability of information
It is important to estimate the benefits of the investment in financial terms wherever possible. For example, a manufacturer of machine parts could take a general benefit such as quality and break it down with estimated savings:
- Reduced reworking means less disruption to the production process, less manufacturing down-time and fewer design changes, resulting in an overall saving of 25 per cent.
- The current warranty and service costs of £10,000 per annum are likely to be halved.
- Quality assurance staff will be reduced by one as needs for inspections are lower.
- Better quality products will increase sales by 6 per cent and will also improve the company's current position of fourth among its competitors.
Before committing to any investment, it is essential to ensure any financing you need is available - see business financing options - an overview.
There may also be other, non-financial reasons for making an investment. For example, you may need to update your equipment to improve health and safety or to meet modern standards or new legislation - see non-financial factors for investment appraisal.
Strategic issues for investment appraisal
Effective investment appraisal does not consider an investment in isolation. Instead, you should consider how the investment could contribute to your overall strategic objectives.
Some investments can offer strategic benefits for your business. For example, you might invest in extending your product range so that you can supply more of the products that your key customers want. An investment like this could help strengthen your brand and your relationship with your customers.
Often, one of the key benefits of making an investment can be the skills your business learns and the future opportunities that may arise. For example, you might invest in developing and trialling a new product even if you don't expect to make any profits at that stage.
If the trial is successful, you can use what you have learned to make a larger, more profitable investment in bringing the product into full-scale production.
On the other hand, making an investment can limit your flexibility to respond to future changes. For example, you would not want to invest heavily in new manufacturing equipment unless you were confident of the demand for your product - see investment risk and sensitivity analysis.
Timescales can also be an important strategic issue. For example, shareholders may prefer investments that are expected to produce a quick return - see payback period.
A useful test for a possible investment is to think about your alternatives. For example, instead of buying new machinery you could:
- do the minimum necessary to maintain your existing machinery
- achieve a similar outcome a different way, eg by outsourcing production to a supplier
- invest in an alternative project instead
Accounting rate of return
The accounting rate of return (ARR) is a way of comparing the profits you expect to make from an investment to the amount you need to invest.
The ARR is normally calculated as the average annual profit you expect over the life of an investment project, compared with the average amount of capital invested. For example, if a project requires an average investment of £100,000 and is expected to produce an average annual profit of £15,000, the ARR would be 15 per cent.
The ARR is widely used to provide a rough guide to how attractive an investment is. The main advantage is that it is easy to understand. The higher the ARR, the more attractive the investment is.
Disadvantages of the accounting rate of return
Points for consideration when using the accounting rate of return are:
- Unlike other methods of investment appraisal, the ARR is based on profits rather than cashflow. It is affected by subjective, non-cash items such as the rate of depreciation you use to calculate profits.
- The ARR also fails to take into account the timing of profits. In calculating ARR, a £100,000 profit five years away is given just as much weight as a £100,000 profit next year. In reality, you would prefer to get the profit sooner rather than later. For more information see discounting future cashflow.
- There are also several different formulas that can be used to calculate an ARR. If you use the ARR to compare different investments, you must be sure that you are calculating the ARR on a consistent basis.
Payback period is a simple technique for assessing an investment by the length of time it would take to repay it. It is usually the default technique for smaller businesses and focuses on cashflow, not profit.
For example, if a project requiring an investment of £100,000 is expected to provide annual cashflow of £25,000, the payback period would be four years. Similar calculations can be used to work out the payback period for a project with uneven annual cash flows.
Payback period is a widely used method of assessing an investment. It is easy to calculate and easy to understand. By focusing on projects which offer a quick payback, it helps you avoid giving too much weight to risky, long-term projections.
Disadvantages of payback period
Payback period ignores the value of any cashflows once the initial investment has been repaid. For example, two projects could both have a payback period of four years, but one might be expected to produce no further return after five years, while the other might continue generating cash indefinitely.
Although payback period focuses on relatively short-term cashflows, it fails to take into account the time-value of money. For example, a £100,000 investment that produced no cashflow until the fourth year - and then a payback of £100,000 - would have the same four-year payback period as an investment that produced an annual cashflow of £25,000.
A more complex version of payback period can be calculated using discounted cashflows. This gives more weight to cashflows you expect to receive sooner - see discounting future cashflow.
Discounting future cashflow
As a rule, money now is better than money in the future. There are two key reasons:
- Money has a time value. If you have money now, you can use it - for example, by putting it on deposit. Conversely, if you want money now but will only get it in the future, you would have to pay to borrow it.
- The further you look ahead, the greater the risks are. If you expect an investment to return £1,000 in a year's time, you may well be right. If you are looking ten years into the future, things might well have changed.
Discounting cashflow takes these concerns into account. It applies a discount rate to work out the present-day equivalent of a future cashflow.
For example, suppose that you expect to receive £100 in one year's time, and use a discount rate of 10 per cent. If you put £90.91 on deposit at 10 per cent for one year, at the end of the year you would have £100. In other words, the present value of that £100 can be calculated as £90.91.
Similar calculations can be used to work out the present value of cashflows you expect to receive further into the future. For example, suppose you expect to receive £100 in two years' time and use a discount rate of 10 per cent. If you put £82.64 on deposit for two years at 10 per cent, at the end of two years you would have £100. In other words, the present value of that £100 is £82.64.
You can use discounted cashflows to assess a potential investment.
Discounting cashflow methods
Discounting cashflow allows you to put cashflows received at different times on a comparable basis - see discounting future cashflow.
You can use discounting cashflow to evaluate potential investments. There are two types of discounting methods of appraisal - the net present value (NPV) and internal rate of return (IRR).
Net present value (NPV)
The NPV calculates the present value of all cashflow associated with an investment: the initial investment outflow and the future cashflow returns. The higher the NPV the better. For example, if an investment of £100,000 generates annual cashflow of £28,000 and you discount at 10 per cent, the NPV for five years of cashflow is £6,142.
However, if the annual cashflow starts at £26,000 and goes up by £1,000 a year, giving the same total amount of cash over five years - £140,000 - the NPV, using a discount rate of 10 per cent, will be £5,422.
Internal rate of return (IRR)
As an alternative, you can work out the discount rate that would give an investment an NPV of zero. This is called the IRR. The higher the IRR the better. You can compare the IRR to your own cost of capital, or the IRR on alternative projects.
The key advantage of NPV and IRR is that they take into account the time value of money - the fact that money you expect sooner is worth more to you than money you expect further in the future.
Disadvantages of net present value and internal rate of return
NPV and IRR are sophisticated and relatively complicated ways of evaluating a potential investment. Most spreadsheet packages include functions that can calculate these or you could ask your accountant for help - see help with investment appraisal.
Choosing the right discount rate to use to calculate NPV is difficult. The discount rate needs to take into account the riskiness of an investment project and should at least match your cost of capital.
Investment risk and sensitivity analysis
A realistic assessment of risks is essential. In practice, the biggest risk for many investments is the disruption they can cause. For example, it can take longer than expected to implement new systems and train employees. The disruption can also lead to a loss of business.
You need to be clear about your underlying assumptions and how reliable they are. If you are making a significant investment, it can be worth assessing the expected return using a range of different assumptions.
For example, you might look at what would happen if a key customer decided not to buy a new product you were developing - see plan and forecast sales.
If you cannot predict the future with confidence, you may prefer to choose a more flexible investment option. For example, you might prefer to get premises on a short-term licence rather than committing to a long-term lease or purchasing premises outright.
Appraising an investment from several different angles can be the most effective way of deciding whether it is worth pursuing.
Techniques like payback period can be used as an initial screen: if an investment doesn't meet your payback target, you eliminate it. For more information see payback period.
If a project passes this first test, you can go on to use more complex calculations such as net present value - see discounting cashflow methods.
Crucially, you should also use your own judgement to consider non-financial factors and to think about how the investment fits your overall strategy - see implementing a strategic plan.
Help with investment appraisal
Investment appraisal techniques rely on accurate calculations to come up with useable answers. Although some of these calculations can be complicated, modern spreadsheet software can help you process them.
For example, a typical spreadsheet package includes functions that can calculate net present value or internal rate of return.
Crucially, an effective appraisal relies on putting in the right figures. For example, the timing of cashflows can have a significant effect on how attractive an investment is. You may also need help dealing with more complex issues, such as the tax implications of different forms of financing.
You may want to ask your accountant for help and advice, particularly if large amounts of money are involved - see choose and work with an accountant.
If you use specialist accounting software, it can help you manage accounts more efficiently by making the process quicker and more straightforward - see accounting software.
If outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty, you may need to test what would happen in a range of different scenarios. For more information see investment risk and sensitivity analysis.
Non-financial factors for investment appraisal
Although the financial case for making an investment is a vital part of the decision-making process, non-financial factors can also be important.
Key non-financial factors for investment
Non-financial factors to consider include:
- meeting the requirements of current and future legislation
- matching industry standards and good practice
- improving staff morale, making it easier to recruit and retain employees
- improving relationships with suppliers and customers
- improving your business reputation and relationships with the local community
- developing the capabilities of your business, such as building skills and experience in new areas or strengthening management systems
- anticipating and dealing with future threats, such as protecting intellectual property against potential competition
For example, you might need to take into account the environmental impact of a potential investment. To some extent, this may be reflected in financial factors, eg the energy savings offered by new machinery. But other effects - such as the effect on your reputation - will also be important. For more information see making the case for environmental improvements.
Weighting non-financial factors
In some cases, non-financial criteria may be essential requirements. For example, you would not invest in new machinery that breaks health and safety regulations.
In other cases, you may need to balance financial and non-financial factors. You will need to decide how important each factor is to your business. An appraisal like this can take into account how well the investment fits with your overall business strategy - see strategic issues for investment appraisal.