Capital Budgeting

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Definition: Capital Budgeting



Full Definition of Capital Budgeting


Capital budgeting (or investment appraisal) is the planning process used to determine a firm’s long-term investments such as new machinery, replacement machinery, new plants, new products, and research and development projects.

Many formal methods are used in capital budgeting, including techniques such as:

  • Net present value
  • Profitability index
  • Internal rate of return
  • Modified Internal Rate of Return, and
  • Equivalent annuity.

These methods use the incremental cash flows from each potential investment, or project. Techniques based on accounting earnings and accounting rules are sometimes used – though economists consider this to be improper – such as the accounting rate of return, and “return on investment.” Simplified and hybrid methods are used as well, such as payback period and discounted payback period.

Net Present Value

Each potential project’s value should be estimated using a discounted cash flow (DCF) valuation, to find its net present value (NPV) – (see Fisher separation theorem). This valuation requires estimating the size and timing of all of the incremental cash flows from the project. These future cash flows are then discounted to determine their present value. These present values are then summed, to get the NPV. See also Time value of money. The NPV decision rule is to accept all positive NPV projects in an unconstrained environment, or if projects are mutually exclusive, except the one with the highest NPV.

The NPV is greatly affected by the discount rate, so selecting the proper rate – sometimes called the hurdle rate – is critical to making the right decision. The hurdle rate is the minimum acceptable return on an investment. It should reflect the riskiness of the investment, typically measured by the volatility of cash flows, and must take into account the financing mix. Managers may use models such as the CAPM or the APT to estimate a discount rate appropriate for each particular project, and use the weighted average cost of capital (WACC) to reflect the financing mix selected. A common practice in choosing a discount rate for a project is to apply a WACC that applies to the entire firm, but a higher discount rate may be more appropriate when a project’s risk is higher than the risk of the firm as a whole.

Internal Rate Of Return

The internal rate of return (IRR) is defined as the discount rate that gives a net present value (NPV) of zero. It is a commonly used measure of investment efficiency.

The IRR method will result in the same decision as the NPV method for independent (non-mutually exclusive) projects in an unconstrained environment, in the usual cases where a negative cash flow occurs at the start of the project, followed by all positive cash flows. In most realistic cases, all independent projects that have an IRR higher than the hurdle rate should be accepted. Nevertheless, for mutually exclusive projects, the decision rule of taking the project with the highest IRR – which is often used – may select a project with a lower NPV.

In some cases, several zero NPV discount rates may exist, so there is no unique IRR. The IRR exists and is unique if one or more years of net investment (negative cash flow) are followed by years of net revenues. But if the signs of the cash flows change more than once, there may be several IRRs. The IRR equation generally cannot be solved analytically but only via iterations.

One shortcoming of the IRR method is that it is commonly misunderstood to convey the actual annual profitability of an investment. However, this is not the case because intermediate cash flows are almost never reinvested at the project’s IRR; and, therefore, the actual rate of return is almost certainly going to be lower. Accordingly, a measure called the Modified Internal Rate of Return (MIRR) is often used.

Despite a strong academic preference for NPV, surveys indicate that executives prefer IRR over NPV, although they should be used in concert. In a budget-constrained environment, efficiency measures should be used to maximize the overall NPV of the firm. Some managers find it intuitively more appealing to evaluate investments in terms of percentage rates of return than dollars of NPV.

Equivalent Annuity Method

The equivalent annuity method expresses the NPV as an annualized cash flow by dividing it by the present value of the annuity factor. It is often used when assessing only the costs of specific projects that have the same cash inflows. In this form, it is known as the equivalent annual cost (EAC) method and is the cost per year of owning and operating an asset over its entire lifespan.

It is often used when comparing investment projects of unequal lifespans. For example, if project A has an expected lifetime of 7 years, and project B has an expected lifetime of 11 years it would be improper to simply compare the net present values (NPVs) of the two projects, unless the projects could not be repeated.

The use of the EAC method implies that the project will be replaced by an identical project.

Alternatively, the chain method can be used with the NPV method under the assumption that the projects will be replaced with the same cash flows each time. To compare projects of unequal length, say 3 years and 4 years, the projects are chained together, i.e. four repetitions of the 3-year project are compared to three repetitions of the 4-year project. The chain method and the EAC method give mathematically equivalent answers.

The assumption of the same cash flows for each link in the chain is essentially an assumption of zero inflation, so a real interest rate rather than a nominal interest rate is commonly used in the calculations.

Real Options

Real options analysis has become important since the 1970s as option pricing models have gotten more sophisticated. The discounted cash flow methods essentially value projects as if they were risky bonds, with the promised cash flows known. But managers will have many choices of how to increase future cash inflows, or to increase future cash outflows. In other words, managers get to manage the projects – not simply accept or reject them. Real options analysis try to value the choices – the option value – that the managers will have in the future and adds these values to the NPV.

Ranked Projects

The real value of capital budgeting is to rank projects. Most organizations have many projects that could potentially be financially rewarding. Once it has been determined that a particular project has exceeded its hurdle, then it should be ranked against peer projects (e.g. – highest IRR to lowest IRR). The highest-ranking projects should be implemented until the budgeted capital has been expended.


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Definition Sources


Definitions for Capital Budgeting are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 18th April, 2020 | 9 Views.