What Is a Discounted Cash Flow Analysis?


Discounted Cash Flow Analysis (DCF) is a financial valuation method that looks at the present value of an investment's expected cash flows by adjusting for the time value of money. Utilizing a DCF allows investors to evaluate the potential return on an investment and thereby make an informed decision as to whether to pursue the investment or not.

Some of the key benefits of using a DCF analysis include:

  • Provides an objective measure to compare various investment options
  • Can reflect the risk associated with an investment
  • Accounts for the time value of money
  • Eases the decision-making process when investing

Time Value of Money

The time value of money is a core principle of finance which states that money has more value today than in the future. This is due to the fact that money can be invested and generate a return which is not possible with money in the future. This concept is embedded in much of the common analysis and practice within finance.

Explanation of Principle

Investors, lenders, and borrowers all make decisions based on the idea that the current value of money is more than some amount promised in the future. In order to account for this, all such parties will adjust for the time value of money when entering into financial arrangements. This is commonly done using the concept of a ‘present value’ – whereby a future amount may be adjusted to calculate what it would be worth today.

Examples of Application in DCF

Discounted Cash Flow Analysis (DCF) is a method of analyzing a financial project such as a corporate investment, whereby the future cash flows are analyzed and adjusted for their time value. That is, an expected future cash flow is ‘discounted back’ to present its real worth today. By taking the time value of money into account, the investor, lender or borrower is able to compare the net present value (NPV) of a project against the cash price of the project, to see if it is a sound investment.

The two components for a DCF analysis are the expected future cash flows and the discount rate used to discount those cash flows. An example of DCF used to assess a project may look something like this. A cost associated with a project (say, a new machine) is $50,000. The net present value of expected future cash flows from the project (over the course of its life) is calculated to be $90,000. Such an analysis suggests that the project will generate value. Alternatively, if the NPV of the cash flows was lower than the cost, the project would be seen as not worth pursuing.

Estimating Future Cash Flows

Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis is a financial tool that businesses use to determine the value of a particular investment or business. It is an important part of financial planning and decision making, and is built on the basic premise that funds that are expected to be received at a later date have less present value than if the same funds were available today, so the cash flows should be adjusted for the time value of money.

One of the critical components of DCF analysis is determining the expected future cash flows, which are estimated based on the anticipated revenues and expenses associated with the investment. There are two main efforts required to project these future cash flows: estimating the company’s future revenues and expenses.

Efforts to Project Revenues and Expenses

When making estimates of future cash flows, organizations consider the following elements when forecasting their expected revenues and expenses:

  • Anticipated sales volumes
  • Cost of goods sold
  • Gross margin
  • Operating expenses
  • Interest expenses
  • Taxes

By considering each of these elements and making estimates of their impact on the company’s future cash flows, organizations can determine what their expected future cash flows will be in the future.

Sources of Data

Organizations must use past and current performance data to make projections of future cash flows. Data can be sourced from the company’s internal records, such as financial reports and operational metrics, or from external sources, such as industry research, market reports, and third-party data providers. In addition, organizations may need to consider macroeconomic factors, such as consumer confidence and interest rates, when making their estimates of future cash flows.

By appropriately considering both internal and external data sources, organizations can make more accurate predictions of their future cash flows, which can then be used in their discounted cash flow analysis.

Discount Rate

Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis is a method used to determine the intrinsic value of a project or investment. In the analysis, all cash inflows and outflows are projected into the future and discounted to present value using an appropriate discount rate. The discount rate takes into account the cost of capital and the risks involved.

Calculation of Cost of Capital

The discount rate is usually determined as the cost of capital for the project or investment. The cost of capital can be calculated in various ways, such as the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC). The WACC is the weighted average of the cost of debt and the cost of equity, and it represents the cost of funds to the company.

Risk Factors Involved

Risk factors also need to be taken into account when calculating the discount rate. Depending on the investment and project, the risk factors may include geopolitical risk, economic risk, liquidity risk, and other factors. A higher risk generally means a higher discount rate.

The discount rate is a critical factor in discounted cash flow analysis and proper consideration should be given to both the cost of capital and the risk factors associated with the project or investment.

Terminal Value

Terminal value is a key component of discounted cash flow analysis. It is used to approximate the future value of a company's equity after the structural forecast period. Terminal value is calculated by assuming that the company will maintain a constant growth rate into the future, typically based on its expected long-term rate of return.

Explanation of Term

The terminal value is the estimated future cash flows after the explicit forecast period. This value can be derived by applying a perpetuity growth model to the last period of the forecasted cash flows or a multiple of current earnings. The discount rate used is adjusted to the terminal value's required rate of return and the investor is not able to compare the cash flows from comparable companies. When the future cash flows are growing at a rate lower than the discount rate, then the present value of the terminal value is negative.

Effect on Total Present Value

The calculation of terminal values is useful when valuing a long-term investment or a future project with a long investment horizon. This is because terminal value calculation can be used to estimate the present value of cash flows beyond the forecast period. The present value of the terminal value is then added to the present value of the cash flows during the explicit forecast period to get the total present value of the project or investment.

Terminal value is an important concept in discounted cash flow analysis. As such, understanding how a terminal value is calculated and its impact on the total present value calculation is essential in order to make accurate investment decisions.

Sensitivity Analysis

In a discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis, sensitivity analysis is used to analyze the impact of potential changes or uncertainties in inputs or assumptions made throughout the cash flow modeling process. The greater the degree of sensitivity, the more influential a change in one input can be with respect to the outcome of the analysis.

Examining Changes in Inputs

Sensitivity analyses can be conducted through adjusting the different assumptions made when calculating the cash flows. These changes could be adjustments in the discount rate, revenue growth rate, cost of capital, working capital rules, capital expenditure growth rate, or any other assumptions. The objective of this exercise is to test the validity of the assumptions made, or to see the potential reaction of the DCF valuation to the slightest change in any of the inputs.

Utilizing Monte Carlo Simulation

In addition to testing changes in inputs, another approach to sensitivity analysis is through utilizing Monte Carlo simulation. This technique allows for the evaluating of a wide range of variables simultaneously in a given model, and can help identify potential extremes that may be present. Through Monte Carlo simulations, potential risks and factors in the cash flow analysis can be examined and analyzed to develop a better understanding of the impact of such risks and variability on the overall outcome.

Furthermore, Monte Carlo simulations can track the expected range of outcomes from a set of given assumptions, in order to establish an expected range of outcomes for a given DCF analysis. This simulation allows for the calculation of probability distributions around key assumptions, which can provide much more insight into the potential outcomes of the analysis.


Discounted cash flow analysis provides a powerful tool to analyze the value of future cash flows and projects. This type of analysis helps businesses make educated decisions on investments, capital expenditures and asset purchases.

Summary of Benefits

Discounted cash flow analysis offers a number of benefits to companies, including:

  • Highly accurate estimates of future cash flows
  • Enables businesses to make better-informed decisions
  • Allows companies to value investments and assets more effectively
  • Helps businesses plan ahead and budget accurately

Final Considerations

When conducting a discounted cash flow analysis, it is important to consider all of the available information. Companies should also be aware of risks such as inflation, market changes and other economic factors that could affect the value of future cash flows.

Discounted cash flow analysis can be a powerful tool when used correctly and accurately. By considering all aspects of a project or investment, companies can make sound decisions that will help them meet their long-term goals.

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