Morne Patterson — Step by Step Guide to Using The Discounted Cash Flow for Accurate Business Valuations

Morne Patterson
14 min readFeb 25, 2024

Have you ever wondered how to gauge the true value of a business, beyond the surface numbers? One of the most reliable methods I’ve come across is the discounted cash flow, or DCF. This approach focuses on what really matters: the present value of an enterprise’s future cash flows. Discounted cash flows aren’t just financial jargon; they’re the lifeblood of valuation, painting a clear picture of an asset’s worth based on expected returns. Comprehending the dynamics of DCF is pivotal for anyone in the business of investments, asset acquisition, or financial analysis.

In this article, I will guide you through mastering the discounted cash flow model — a tool that’s necessary for accurate business evaluation. We’ll unpack the components of the DCF formula, get into the mechanics of cash flows and their significance, and determine how to calculate the appropriate discount rate, often through the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC). Additionally, we’ll estimate the terminal value of assets, apply the DCF model step by step, and analyse our findings to make informed decisions.

Understanding Cash Flows

Cash flows are the lifeblood of a business, as they represent the actual cash generated from a company’s operations. To fully grasp their importance in the discounted cash flow (DCF) process, it’s important to recognise the three main types of cash flows:

1. Operating Cash Flows: These are derived from a company’s core business operations. It’s the cash that’s produced from selling goods or services net of cash locked up debtors and unlocked in creditors.

2. Investing Cash Flows: This type reflects the money spent on or received from long-term asset investments, such as purchasing equipment.

3. Financing Cash Flows: These cash flows are related to the capital being raised by the company, which can include issuing shares or bonds and paying dividends.

Understanding these cash flows is crucial for business valuation because they provide a true picture of a company’s financial health and profitability. Here’s how they fit into various valuation methods:

· Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) Analysis: This method estimates future cash flows and discounts them to present value using a discount rate, revealing the intrinsic value of the business.

· Free Cash Flow (FCF) Analysis: FCF Analysis focuses on the cash that’s available to investors after capital expenditures have been accounted for, which are necessary to maintain or expand the business’s operations.

· Cash Flow Return on Investment (CFROI): CFROI measures the efficiency of a business’s investments by comparing the cash flows a business generates to its capital expenditures.

To get deeper into the practical application of these concepts:

· Free Cash Flows (FCF): This is the cash that a company is able to generate after laying out the money required to maintain or expand its asset base. It is an important benchmark in the DCF model, as it represents the cash available to all equity holders, debt investors, and shareholders.

· Operating Free Cash Flow (OFCF): OFCF is the cash that’s generated from the company’s day-to-day business operations and is attributed to all providers of capital in the firm’s capital structure.

Valuation using the DCF model is rooted in the operating cash flows that come in after capital expenditures are subtracted, which are then discounted at the company’s cost of capital. By comparing the calculated intrinsic value to the company’s current share price, investors can determine if the share is overvalued or undervalued.

Remember, a thorough understanding of cash flows and their components is vital before applying the discounted cash flow model to ensure an accurate and reliable business valuation.

Calculating the Discount Rate

In the discounted cash flow model, one of the critical steps is calculating the discount rate. This rate is pivotal as it reflects the risk associated with the investment and the cost of capital. Let’s dive into the steps for determining this crucial component in the DCF analysis:

1. Understanding the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC):

· WACC represents the average rate of return a company must pay to its investors, encompassing both debt holders and equity holders.

· It serves as the discount rate for future cash flows in the DCF model, essential for calculating the Net Present Value (NPV).

2. Components of WACC:

· Cost of Equity (Ke): Calculated using the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), where Ke = Risk-Free Rate (Rf) + Beta (B) * (Market Return (Rm) — Rf).

· Cost of Debt (Kd): For a company, this is typically the interest rate paid on its debt. However, for a private company, it’s calculated by dividing the debt’s coupon by its book value.

· Corporate Tax Rate (T): An integral part of the WACC calculation, currently 27% in South Africa.

3. Calculating WACC:

· Multiply the cost of each capital component by its proportional weight.

· Add the weighted costs to obtain the total WACC value.

4. Risk Assessment and Discount Rate Adjustment:

· The discount rate varies based on the investment’s risk level.

· For SaaS companies, recommended discount rates range from 10% for public companies to 20% for private companies not yet scaled or growing in a stable fashion.

By applying these steps, you can determine a realistic discount rate for your DCF analysis, which is a cornerstone in reaching an accurate business valuation. Remember, a meticulous approach to calculating the discount rate will enhance the precision of your discounted cash flow model and the reliability of your valuation results.

Incorporating these technicalities into your DCF model will ensure that your business valuation is not only grounded in sound financial theory but also reflective of the market’s current expectations and the inherent risk of the investment. Keep in mind that these calculations are not set in stone and should be revisited as market conditions and company specifics evolve. With practice, determining the discount rate will become a more intuitive part of your valuation process, allowing you to make more informed investment decisions.

Estimating Terminal Value

When applying the discounted cash flow model, estimating the terminal value is a pivotal step, as it often accounts for a significant portion of the total valuation. Here’s how to approach this critical calculation:

Growth in Perpetuity Approach

· Step 1: Determine the Final Year Free Cash Flow (FCF): This is the cash flow generated in the last year of your projection period. Ensure that your terminal year isn’t reflected too soon in your cash flow projection (i.e. at least 10 years and more from today).

· Step 2: Select a Perpetuity Growth Rate (g): This rate should realistically reflect the company’s ability to grow cash flows indefinitely. Typically, it falls between 2% and 5%.

· Step 3: Apply the Perpetuity Growth Formula: Calculate the terminal value by multiplying the final year FCF by (1+g) and then dividing by the difference between the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC) and the growth rate (g), as shown in the formula: FCFn x (1+g) / (WACC — g).

Exit Multiple Approach

· Step 1: Identify an Appropriate Market Metric: Common metrics include EBITDA or earnings.

· Step 2: Choose a Comparable Multiple: Find multiples used for similar public companies.

· Step 3: Calculate Terminal Value: Multiply the chosen metric by the selected multiple to estimate the terminal value.

Decision Factors

· Data Availability: Choose the method that aligns with the data you have at hand.

· Market Conditions: Consider current market multiples and growth expectations.

· Company Specifics: Reflect on the company’s long-term growth prospects and stability.


· Cross-Check With Alternative Method: Use the other method as a sanity check for your terminal value calculation.

· Calculate Implied g or Terminal Multiple: This can help verify the plausibility of your terminal value.

Careful consideration of the assumptions made when calculating the terminal value is crucial, given that it can represent the bulk of the business’s total implied valuation. Selecting the right method and parameters, and cross-checking your results, will contribute to a more accurate and reliable valuation in your discounted cash flow analysis.

Applying the Discounted Cash Flow Model

To effectively apply the discounted cash flow (DCF) model, it’s important to follow a structured approach that considers all the necessary components. Here is a step-by-step guide to applying the DCF model for business valuation:

Forecasting Free Cash Flows

· Year 1 to Year 5 (or more): Project the free cash flows for an explicit forecast period. This involves detailed financial projections, including revenue growth, margins, changes in working capital, and capital expenditures.

· Assumptions: Make reasonable assumptions about the future performance of the business based on historical data and industry trends.

· Calculation: Free cash flows can be calculated by taking the earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT), adding depreciation and amortisation, subtracting taxes, and then subtracting capital expenditures and changes in working capital.

Determining the Discount Rate

· Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC): Use WACC as the discount rate to account for the time value of money and risk associated with the investment. This step is crucial because it significantly impacts the present value of future cash flows.

· Risk Assessment: Adjust the discount rate to reflect the specific risks related to the business or industry. Higher risk typically leads to a higher discount rate.

Calculating the Terminal Value

· Gordon Growth Model: Apply this method if the business is expected to grow at a steady, perpetual rate. The formula is: Terminal Value = Final Year Cash Flow * (1 + g) / (WACC — g), where g is the growth rate.

· Exit Multiple Method: Alternatively, use this method based on market comparables. Calculate the terminal value by applying an industry multiple to the company’s financial metric, such as EBITDA.

Discounting the Cash Flows

· Present Value Calculation: Discount each year’s projected free cash flows and the terminal value back to the present using the WACC.

· Summation: Add the discounted cash flows and the discounted terminal value to arrive at the total present value of the business.

Analysing the Results

· Comparison: Compare the calculated DCF valuation to the current market value to assess whether the business is overvalued or undervalued.

· Sensitivity Analysis: Perform sensitivity analysis by varying key assumptions to see how changes affect the valuation, providing a range of possible outcomes.

Considerations and Challenges

· Accuracy of Projections: The reliability of the DCF heavily depends on the accuracy of the cash flow projections. Overly optimistic or pessimistic forecasts can skew the results.

· Long-Term Predictions: Estimating cash flows far into the future is inherently challenging and can introduce significant uncertainty into the model.

· Magnification of Errors: Small errors in the early years can be magnified over time, affecting the valuation.

By carefully following these steps and considering the advantages and limitations of the DCF model, we can obtain a robust valuation that takes into account the financial performance and risk profile of the business. While the DCF model allows for the consideration of various scenarios, it’s crucial to remain vigilant about the assumptions made and to regularly update the analysis as new information becomes available. For more detailed guidance on the DCF model and its application, exploring additional resources on discounted cash flows can further enhance your understanding and proficiency in business valuation.

Analysing the Results

Once we have applied the discounted cash flow model, analysing the results is crucial to understand the intrinsic value of the business we are evaluating. Here’s how we can proceed:

Analysing the Results with DCF

· Net Present Value (NPV): The final step in a DCF analysis is calculating the NPV, which indicates the value added or lost through the investment. An NPV greater than zero suggests that the investment would theoretically yield a positive return over the cost of capital. Conversely, a negative NPV implies that the investment would not meet the required rate of return.

· Comparing DCF Valuation to Market Value:

· If the DCF valuation exceeds the current market value, the business may be undervalued, potentially representing a good investment opportunity.

· If the DCF valuation is less than the market value, the business might be overvalued, suggesting caution for potential investors.

· Sensitivity Analysis:

· Conduct a sensitivity analysis by adjusting key assumptions, such as the growth rate or WACC, to see how they influence the valuation.

· This analysis helps identify which variables have the most impact on the valuation and provides a range of possible outcomes, enhancing the decision-making process.

Key Components to Revisit in DCF

· Free Cash Flow Projections: Ensure that the projected cash flows are realistic and based on thorough analysis. Remember that overly optimistic or pessimistic projections can lead to significant valuation errors.

· Discount Rate: The chosen WACC should accurately reflect the business’s risk profile and the cost of capital. An incorrect discount rate can lead to a skewed valuation.

· Terminal Value: The assumptions for growth rates and multiples should be in line with industry standards and the long-term prospects of the company.

Advantages and Disadvantages of DCF Analysis

· Advantages:

· The DCF model is not swayed by temporary market conditions and provides an intrinsic valuation based on the company’s own performance.

· It is particularly useful when comparable market information is scarce or non-existent.

· Disadvantages:

· The DCF model is sensitive to input assumptions, particularly those related to cash flows and discount rates.

· It can be time-consuming and requires a deep understanding of both the company being valued and the market in which it operates.

By integrating these steps into our analysis, we can use the discounted cash flow model to arrive at a valuation that is both theoretically sound and grounded in the specific financial dynamics of the business. It’s important to remember that while the DCF is a powerful tool, it is also dependent on a number of assumptions that can significantly affect the outcome. Regularly updating our analysis with the latest financial data and market insights will help us maintain an accurate and relevant valuation.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

To ensure the accuracy and reliability of a discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis, it is essential to navigate common pitfalls effectively. Here are some strategies to avoid these pitfalls:

· Assumptions and Forecasts:

· Use conservative estimates grounded in historical data and industry benchmarks. Avoid basing your DCF analysis on overly optimistic or pessimistic forecasts, as these can skew results significantly.

· Regularly review and adjust your assumptions to reflect the latest market and business conditions.

· Discount Rate Calculation:

· Verify that the discount rate aligns with the risk profile of the business and the type of cash flow being discounted. Errors here can lead to serious valuation inaccuracies.

· Employ a consistent approach when estimating WACC, ensuring that it matches the cash flows’ riskiness.

· Terminal Value Estimation:

· If the terminal value comprises an exceedingly large portion of the valuation, exceeding 75%, reconsider your assumptions or extend the explicit forecast period to achieve a more balanced valuation as suggested by Wall Street Prep

· Utilise both the Growth in Perpetuity and Exit Multiple approaches to cross-verify the terminal value.

· Contextual Factors:

· Incorporate macroeconomic factors, industry trends, and company-specific risks into your valuation to avoid a narrow perspective.

· Stay informed about the broader economic environment and industry conditions, and adjust your DCF model accordingly.

· Working Capital and Capital Expenditure:

· Working capital changes can significantly affect cash flow projections. Be thorough in estimating these figures and ensure they are realistic and consistent with past performance.

· Factor in capital expenditures accurately to avoid undervaluing the impact on future cash flows.

· Growth Rates:

· Align growth rates with realistic benchmarks and historical trends. Use different rates for various business stages, and base them on solid data and plausible scenarios.

· Investment and Earnings Growth Correlation:

· In your DCF model, accurately quantify the investment needed to support projected growth rates. Underestimating the investment required can lead to an inflated intrinsic share price.

· Adjust the cash flows to consider the timing, probability, and risk of synergies and costs as highlighted by EDUCBA

· Other Liabilities:

· Properly categorise and recognise other liabilities, such as employee stock options and post-retirement benefit plans, to prevent them from distorting the valuation.

· Double Counting:

· Prevent errors by ensuring each value is only accounted for once in the model. This avoids the risk of double counting, which can inflate the valuation erroneously.

By being vigilant and methodical in addressing these areas, you can refine your discounted cash flow analysis to better reflect the true value of a business.


Through this comprehensive exploration of the Discounted Cash Flow model, we’ve considered the method’s importance for understanding the intrinsic value of businesses and investments. We’ve walked through the complexities of cash flow analyses and uncovered the intricacies involved in calculating discount rates and estimating terminal values. The precision of a DCF analysis hinges on realistic assumptions and careful scrutiny of all inputs from cash flows to capital expenditures.

In essence, the DCF model is an important tool, yet one that demands nuanced understanding and meticulous application to mitigate the risk of errors. By embracing its analytical power and circumventing common pitfalls, investors can harness DCF to make more informed decisions backed by a solid foundation of financial wisdom. The journey through DCF concludes by reiterating its role as a critical beacon in navigating the murky waters of business valuation, where it not only illuminates worth but also the potential future pathways of an enterprise.


How is a business valued using the discounted cash flow method?To value a business using discounted cash flow (DCF), an investor needs to estimate future cash flows and the terminal value of assets. They must also determine a suitable discount rate for the DCF model, which can vary based on the specific investment or project.

What are the key steps in performing a DCF valuation?DCF valuation involves a seven-step process: projecting financial statements, calculating the free cash flow to the business, determining the discount rate, calculating the terminal value, performing present value calculations, making adjustments as needed, and conducting a sensitivity analysis.

What is the formula used in the discounted cash flow valuation method?The discounted cash flow (DCF) formula is the sum of each period’s cash flow divided by one plus the discount rate (often the weighted average cost of capital, or WACC), raised to the power of the period number.

How is enterprise value calculated using DCF?Enterprise Value (EV) is calculated by adding the market value of equity (share price multiplied by the number of shares) to total debt and subtracting cash. The Net Present Value (NPV) of all Free Cash Flow to the Firm (FCFF) in a DCF Model is then used to determine the Enterprise Value.

When should a DCF not be used for valuation?DCF should not be used when assessing short-term profit potential since it focuses on long-term growth. Investors should also avoid relying solely on DCF for valuing stocks, as it is important to consider multiple valuation methods.

Why is DCF considered the best valuation method?DCF valuation is highly regarded because it captures the fundamental drivers of a business, such as cost of equity, weighted average cost of capital, growth rate, and re-investment rate. It is considered to provide the closest estimate to an asset’s or business’s intrinsic value by focusing on Free Cash Flows.

Can you outline the steps to build a DCF model?To build a DCF model, follow this 6-step framework: forecast unlevered free cash flows, calculate the terminal value, discount the cash flows to the present using the weighted average cost of capital (WACC), add the value of non-operating assets to the present value of unlevered free cash flows, and subtract debt and other non-equity claims.

Is DCF a reliable valuation technique?DCF valuation is highly sensitive to the assumptions made about the perpetual growth rate and discount rate. It can produce varying results with slight changes to these inputs. DCF is most reliable when there is a high level of confidence in the projections of future cash flows.

How do you perform a DCF valuation in Excel?To perform a DCF valuation in Excel, organise your data first, then calculate the present value for each cash flow using the formula =CashFlow / (1 + DiscountRate)^Year. Calculate the present value of the terminal value using the formula =TerminalValue / (1 + DiscountRate)^LastYear. Finally, sum all present values to get the DCF.



Morne Patterson

Morne Patterson is a positive, driven individual and considers himself to have good leadership skills. Visit:-