For the first time in 31 years – or since the Chicago Bears won their only Super Bowl – Congress has passed major tax reform legislation. Since the changes were signed into law in December, CFOs and their teams have been busy understanding the technical aspects of tax reform and the implication to tax expense and liabilities. While this is an important near-term priority, the significance of the Tax Reform Reconciliation Act (TRRA) is actually substantially more far reaching, as it impacts a crucial decision for almost every company: how to deploy its capital. In many cases, a CFO’s organization will need to enhance the information, process and tools to help them answer these questions.
In short, the Act has changed the game. Much lower US tax rates, full deduction of capital expenditures, a territorial tax system, caps on interest and executive compensation deductions, minimum taxes on foreign income, and changes to pass-through provisions fundamentally alter the cash flows and returns of a company’s strategy and investments. These are complex changes with many “puts” and “takes.” For example, a company might cheer the lower US statutory rate, the ability to immediately expense qualified capital expenditures and lower cost access to its foreign earnings. But it might not enjoy paying the one-time tax bill on past foreign earnings, adjusting to the cap on interest deductions and learning a whole new language to avoid such provisions as GILTI and BEAT. Thinking through the strategic implications of these changes and their impact on value will require a new set of rules for the road.
Intrinsic value (i.e. discounted free cash flows) now becomes an even more critical way for a company to evaluate its strategic investments and alternatives. Short hand metrics, such as EBITDA, that don’t account for tax and capital investments are even less accurate proxies today than they were before the Act. Cash flow has always been king and should be measured directly in this new tax world. It is more important than ever for companies to use maximizing cash flow or intrinsic value as the choice criteria for evaluating alternative uses of capital.
While tax reform has just recently passed, the capital market impact of tax reform has been progressively felt since Election Day. The prospect of tax reform is clearly not the only driver of market values, but it seems more than a pure coincidence that the S&P 500 was up 23% from Election Day to the date the Act was passed, and the impact on corporate earnings from moving from a 37% effective rate to a 23% effective rate is 22%. Said simply, investors have started to bake the impact of tax reform into company market values.
For example, one retailer’s share price has recently increased by $20 a share. Our analysis indicated that $16 of that increase was a result of the increased cash flows expected as a result of the tax changes, and only $4 was from a better than expected holiday shopping season. As CFOs begin to understand what they plan to do with this cash, they must first determine how much money investors expect the company to return to shareholders. How much does the company have to reinvest in its business? What are investors expecting in terms of returns for this investment?
Once CFOs understand investor expectations, they should start to think through where to deploy capital to generate the highest returns. The Act changes the future cash flows and value of the company’s current investments, and management needs to revise its strategy and structure, then update or develop new and enhanced tools to help them evaluate alternative investments and maximize the return on capital. As CFOs perform this analysis, the following information, process and tools will likely need to be updated or developed:
Not since William Perry was doing the Super Bowl Shuffle have we had such a fundamental change in federal tax policy. The implications for where and how a company allocates capital can be profound. This will put pressure on CFOs and their organizations to enhance the information, processes and tools needed to guide capital allocation decisions.