THE CAPITAL BUDGETING DECISIONS OF SMALL BUSINESSES Abstract This paper uses survey data compiled by the National Federation of Independent Business to analyze the capital budgeting practices of small firms. While large firms tend to rely on the discounted cash flow analysis favored by finance texts, many small firms evaluate projects using the payback period or the owner’s gut feel. The limited education background of some business owners and small staff sizes partly explain why small firms use these relatively unsophisticated project evaluation tools. However, we also identify specific business reasons— including liquidity concerns and cash flow estimation challenges—to explain why small firms do not exclusively use discounted cash flow analysis when evaluating projects. These results suggest that optimal investment evaluation procedures for large and small firms might differ. [G31]
THE CAPITAL BUDGETING DECISIONS OF SMALL BUSINESSES
This paper analyzes the capital budgeting practices of small firms. The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that small businesses (which they define as firms with fewer than 500 employees) produce 50 percent of private GDP in the U.S., and employ 60 percent of the private sector labor force. Many small businesses are service oriented, but according to the 1997 Economic Census over 50 percent are in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, transportation, wholesale, and retail—all industries requiring substantial capital investment. Thus, capital investments in the small business sector are important to both the individual firms and the overall economy. Despite the importance of capital investment to small firms, most capital budgeting surveys over the past 40 years have focused on the investment decisions of large firms (examples include Moore and Reichardt, 1983, Scott and Petty, 1984, and Bierman, 1993). An exception is Graham and Harvey (2001), who compare the capital budgeting practices of small and large firms.
Even their small firms are quite large, however, with a revenue threshold of $1 billion used to separate firms by size. Indeed, less than 10 percent of their sample report revenues below $25 million. Thus, Graham and Harvey’s results do not directly address the investment decisions of very small firms.1 There are several reasons small and large firms might use different criteria to evaluate projects. First, small business owners may balance wealth maximization (the goal of a firm in capital budgeting theory) against other objectives—such as maintaining the independence of the business (Ang, 1991, Keasey and Watson, 1993)—when making investment decisions. Second, small firms lack the personnel resources of larger firms, and therefore may not have the time or The Federal Reserve Board of Governor’s Survey of Small Business Finance serves as the data source in many studies of small business finance.
The firms in the Board of Governor’s Survey tend to be much smaller than the firms in the Graham and Harvey (2001) sample; in the 1993 Board of Governor’s survey, 83 percent of the firms report revenues under $1 million. The firms in the Graham and Harvey sample, therefore, are much larger than firms typically included in studies of small business finance. the expertise to analyze projects in the same depth as larger firms (Ang, 1991). Finally, some small firms face capital constraints, making project liquidity a prime concern (Petersen and Rajan, 1994, and Danielson and Scott, 2004). Because of these small firm characteristics, survey results on the capital budgeting decisions of large firms are not likely to describe the procedures used by small firms. To document the capital budgeting practices of small businesses, defined here as firms with fewer than 250 employees, we use survey data collected for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Research Foundation by the Gallup Organization.
The results include information about the types of investments the firm makes (e.g., replacement versus expansion), the primary tools used to evaluate projects (e.g., discounted cash flow analysis, payback period), the firm’s use of other planning tools (e.g., cash flow projections, capital budgets, and tax planning activities), and the owner’s willingness to finance projects with debt. The survey also includes demographic variables that allow us to examine the relations between capital budgeting practice and firm characteristics such as size, sales growth, industry, owner age, owner education level, and business age. Not surprisingly, we find small and large firms evaluate projects differently. While large firms tend to rely on the discounted cash flow calculations favored by capital budgeting theory (Graham and Harvey, 2001), small firms most often cite “gut feel” and the payback period as their primary project evaluation tool.
Less than 15 percent of the firms claim discounted cash flow analysis as their primary criterion, and over 30 percent of the firms do not estimate cash flows at all when they make investment decisions. The very smallest of the surveyed firms (firms with 3 employees or fewer) are significantly less likely to make cash flow projections, perhaps because of time constraints. Certainly a lack of sophistication contributes to these results, as over 50 percent of the small-business owners surveyed do not have a college degree. Yet, there are also specific business reasons why discounted cash flow analysis may not be the best project evaluation tool for every small firm. For example, 45 percent of the sample would delay a promising investment until it could be financed with internally generated funds, suggesting the firms face real (or selfimposed) capital constraints.
2 We also find that the most important class of investments is “replacement” for almost 50 percent of the firms. Discounted cash flow calculations may not be required to justify replacement investments if the owner is committed to maintaining the firm as a going concern, and if the firm has limited options about how and when to replace equipment. Finally, investments in new product lines are the most important class of investments for almost one-quarter of the sample firms. Because the ultimate success of this type of investment is often uncertain, it can be difficult to obtain reliable future cash flow estimates, reducing the value of discounted cash flow analysis. Thus, our results suggest that optimal methods of capital budgeting analysis can differ between large and small firms.
I. Capital Budgeting Theory and Small Firms
Brealey and Myers (2003) present a simple rule managers can use to make capital budgeting decisions: Invest in all positive net present value projects, and reject those with a negative net present value. By following this rule, capital budgeting theory says firms will make the set of investment decisions that will maximize shareholder wealth. And, because net present value is a complete measure of a project’s contribution to shareholder wealth, there is no need for the firm to consider alternative capital budgeting tools, such as payback period or accounting rate of return. Yet, small firms often operate in environments that do not satisfy the assumptions underlying the basic capital budgeting model. And, small firms may not be able to make reliable estimates of future cash flows, as required in discounted cash flow analysis. We discuss these potential problems
Survey participants were asked: “Suppose you had the opportunity to make an investment in your business that would allow earnings to rise 25 percent within the next two years. The project had minimal risk, but you did NOT have the cash right then to make the investment. Would you most likely . . . ?” The choices included wait until you accumulate enough cash, borrow the money and make the investment, seek an outside investor, and other. Forty-five percent of the respondents selected wait until you accumulate enough cash.
In detail, and explain why discounted cash flow analysis is not necessarily the one best capital budgeting decision tool for every small firm.
A. Capital Budgeting Assumptions and the Small Firm Capital budgeting theory typically assumes that the primary goal of a firm’s shareholders is to maximize firm value. In addition, the firm is assumed to have access to perfect financial markets, allowing it to finance all value-enhancing projects. When these assumptions are met, firms can separate investment and financing decisions, and should invest in all positive net present value projects (Brealey and Myers, 2003). There are at least three reasons to question the applicability of this theory to small firms. First, shareholder wealth maximization may not be the objective of every small firm. As Keasey and Watson (1993, p. 228) point out, an entrepreneur may establish a firm as an alternative to unemployment, as a way to avoid employment boredom (i.e., as a life-style choice), or as a vehicle to develop, manufacture, and market inventions.
In each case, the primary goal of the entrepreneur may be to maintain the viability of the firm, rather than to maximize its value.3 Second, many small firms have limited management resources, and lack expertise in finance and accounting (Ang, 1991). Because of these deficiencies, they may not evaluate projects using discounted cash flows. Providing some support for this conjecture, Graham and Harvey (2001) find that small-firm managers are more likely to use less sophisticated methods of analysis, such as the payback period.4 The final impediment is capital market imperfections, which constrain the financing options for small firms. Some cannot obtain bank loans, because of their information-opaqueness
In a survey of Swiss firms, Jorg, Loderer, and Roth (2004) find that maintaining the independence of the firm was cited more frequently than shareholder value maximization as a goal of managers. They also find that firms pursuing goals other than shareholder value maximization were less likely to rely on discounted cash flow analysis for investment decisions. 4 The small firms in the Graham and Harvey (2001) have up to $1 billion in annual revenues. Thus, it is likely that many of these firms have more complete management teams than the small firms envisioned by Ang (1991). In contrast, we evaluate the capital budgeting policies of very small firms—our sample includes only firms with less than 250 employees, and over 80 percent of the firms have less than 10 employees—where the problem of incomplete management teams is likely to be most severe.
And lack of strong banking relationships (e.g., Petersen and Rajan, 1994 and 1995, and Cole, 1998). Ang (1991) notes that access to public capital markets can be expensive for certain small firms, and impossible for others. These capital constraints can make it essential for small firms to maintain sufficient cash balances, in order to respond to potentially profitable investments as they become available (Almeida, Campello, and Weisbach, 2004). Thus, capital constraints provide small privately held firms with a legitimate economic reason to be concerned about how quickly a project will generate cash flows (i.e., the payback period). B. Cash Flow Estimation Issues In his critique of capital budgeting theory, Booth (1996) describes estimation issues managers must confront when implementing discounted cash flow analysis. He concludes that discounted cash flow analysis is less valuable, the more uncertain the level of future cash flows. According to this view, discounted cash flow analysis can be applied most directly to projects with cash flow profiles similar to the firm’s current operations (such as projects extending those operations).
Discounted cash flow analysis will be less valuable to evaluate ventures that are not directly related to current activities. Although Booth developed these ideas for large multinational corporations, they can also be applied to small firms. If a small firm is considering investment in a new product line, future cash flows cannot be estimated directly from the past performance of the firm’s current operations. In addition, because of the firm’s scale, market research studies to quantify future product demand (and cash flows) might not be cost effective. For these reasons, small firms may not rely exclusively on discounted cash flow analysis when evaluating investments in new product lines.
There are also reasons why a small firm may not use discounted cash flow analysis to evaluate replacement decisions. In many cases, replacing equipment is not a discretionary investment for a small firm; the firm must replace the equipment to stay in business. In some replacement decisions, a small firm may have limited replacement options, and differences in the future maintenance costs of the various options can be difficult to forecast.5 Because small firms do not satisfy the assumptions underlying capital budgeting theory, and because of these cash flow estimation challenges, it would be natural for small firms to evaluate projects using different techniques than large firms. But, evidence about these differences is largely anecdotal. We use survey data to document the capital budgeting practices of small firms, and to provide evidence about whether small-firm project evaluation methods are related to the type of investment under consideration.
II. Description of Data The use of survey data to document capital budgeting practices has a long history in the finance literature.6 Yet, survey results should be interpreted with caution because surveys measure manager beliefs, not necessarily their actions; survey participants may not be representative of the defined population of firms; and survey questions may be misunderstood by some participants (Graham and Harvey, 2001, p. 189). Nonetheless, surveys provide information that cannot be readily gleaned from financial statements. In particular, surveys can shed light on how firms make investment and financing decisions, and why they use these approaches. The data for this study were collected for the NFIB Research Foundation by the Gallup Organization. The interviews for the survey were conducted in April and May 2003 from a sample of small firms, defined as a business employing at least one individual in addition to the owner, but no more than 249.
The sampling frame for the survey was drawn at the NFIB’s direction from the files of the Dun & Bradstreet Corporation. Because the distribution of small busi-Booth (1996) also concludes that discounted cash flow analysis might not be used for replacement decisions, but for a different reason. He argues that the payback period combined with judgment can often lead a firm to the correct decision for replacement projects, making discounted cash flow analysis unnecessary. 6 Scott and Petty (1984) summarize the results of 21 early studies of large firm capital budgeting practices. The selection criteria in these studies include membership in the Fortune 500/1000, a minimum level of capital expenditures, size, or stock appreciation in excess of certain benchmarks. In more recent studies, Moore and Reichardt (1983) surveyed 298 Fortune 500 firms, Bierman (1993) looked at 74 Fortune 100 firms, and Graham and Harvey (2001) investigated the behavior of 392 firms chosen from the membership of the Financial Executives Institute and the Fortune 500.
Nesses is highly skewed when ranked by number of employees, interview quotas were used to add more larger firms to the sample. Once the data were compiled, the responses were weighted to reflect population proportions based on U.S. Census data, yielding a sample of 792 observations. Exhibit 1 summarizes the demographic characteristics of the sample—industry, sales growth, business age, employment, owner education, and owner age. For each attribute, we group responses into three to five categories. Insert Exhibit 1 here Exhibit 1 shows 72 percent of the sample firms are in construction, manufacturing, retail, or wholesale, all industries requiring substantial capital investments. Service industries, where capital expenditures may have less importance, account for 20 percent of the sample. The sample is
distributed evenly across four real sales growth categories. The highgrowth category is defined as a cumulative (not annualized) increase of 20 percent or more over the past two years, and includes 24 percent of the sample firms. At the other extreme, 24 percent of the firms report two-year sales declines of 10 percent or more. This distribution implies that approximately 75 percent of the sample firms have experienced an average annualized growth rate of 10 percent or less over the last two years. Thus, many of the capital budgeting decisions of small firms may be focused more on maintaining current levels of service and quality, rather than on expansion. Similarly, the sample is distributed fairly evenly across four business-age categories, ranging from six years in business or less (23 percent of the sample), to 21 years in business or more (27 percent of the sample). The number of years in business could influence both the type of investments a firm will make and the firm’s planning process. For example, firms in business longer may have more equipment in need of replacement. A business with a limited operating history may not be able to obtain a bank loan unless it can demonstrate that it has appropriate planning processes in place. The median (mean) number of total employees is 4 (9).
Sixteen percent of the firms have only one employee, and only 18 percent have 10 or more. Thus, it is likely that many sample firms do not have complete management teams, and may not have adequate staff to fully analyze capital budgeting alternatives. The data in Exhibit 1 also suggest that the educational background of owners could influence how the firm makes capital budgeting decisions. Over 50 percent of the business owners do not have a four-year college degree, and only 13 percent have an advanced or professional degree. Therefore, many of the small-business owners may have an incomplete (or incorrect) understanding of how capital budgeting alternatives should be evaluated. Finally, 63 percent of the business owners are at least 45 years old, and 32 percent are 55 or older. There is some evidence that older managers evaluate capital investments using less sophisticated methods (see Graham and Harvey, 2001).
III. Survey Results We use the NFIB survey to address three questions concerning the capital budgeting activities of small firms. We first consider whether the investment and financing activities of small firms conform to the assumptions underlying capital budgeting theory. Then, we look at the overall planning activities of small firms (e.g., use of business plans, consideration of tax implications) and identify firm characteristics that tend to be present when more sophisticated practices are in place. Finally, we provide evidence about the specific project evaluation techniques small firms use (e.g., payback period, discounted cash flow methods). We identify significant differences between the average responses in various subsets of firms and the overall sample averages using a binomial Z-score. We use multinomial logit to evaluate how the choice of investment evaluation tools is related to a set of firm characteristics. A. Investment Activity Exhibit 2 describes the investment activities of sample firms.
It identifies the firms’ most important type of investment over the previous 12 months, and reports the percentage of firms that will delay a potentially profitable investment until the firm has enough internally generated cash to fund the project. Insert Exhibit 2 here The most important type of investment is replacement for 46 percent of the sample firms. Firms in service industries were more likely than the average sample firm to select this response, and those in construction and manufacturing were less likely. Firms with the highest growth rates and those in business less than six years were less likely than the average sample firm to report replacement activity as the primary investment type. Finally, the importance of replacement activity increases with the age of the business owner; it is significantly less than the overall sample mean when the business owner is younger than 44.7 Projects to extend existing product lines are shown as the primary investment activity for 21 percent of the sample firms.
Construction and manufacturing firms select this response at a higher rate than the overall sample average. The remaining subsample averages are not significantly different from the overall sample averages (at the 5 percent significance level). Investments in new product lines are reported as the most frequent investment for 23 percent of the sample firms. Firms in the service industry were less likely than the average sample firm to select this response. Firms with the highest growth rates were more likely (than the overall sample average) to be expanding into new product lines, while those with the lowest growth rate were less likely. The oldest firms were also less likely than the average firm to be considering expansion into new product lines. Exhibit 2 also suggests that many small firms face real (or self-imposed) capital constraints. Forty-five percent of the sample firms report they would delay a promising investment
The significance of the subsample entries depends on the difference between the subsample mean and the overall sample mean in a given column, and on the number of observations in the subsample (most of these numbers appear in Exhibit 1). Thus, it is possible for two subsamples to have similar response percentages, one significant and the other not. For example, 54 percent of the service firms identify replacement as the primary investment type, while 55 percent of the firms in the “other” industry category select this investment type. This response percentage is significantly different from the overall sample average for service firms, but not for the “other” firms. As shown in Exhibit 1, there are twice as many service industry firms. Until it could be financed with internally generated funds (wait for cash).
Firms most likely to wait for cash include the youngest firms, the smallest firms, and those whose owner does not have a college degree. As these firms are likely to face capital market constraints, this result supports the prediction in Almeida, Campello, and Weisbach (2004) that capital constraints will make a firm more likely to save cash. Firms with older owners are also slightly more likely to wait for cash than firms with younger owners. These results suggest three reasons small firms might not follow the prescriptions of capital budgeting theory when evaluating projects. First, it is noteworthy that replacement activity is the most important type of investment for almost half of the sample firms. If replacing old equipment is necessary for the firm to remain in business, the owner’s capital budgeting decision is essentially a choice between replacing the machine and staying in business, or closing the business and finding employment elsewhere. In this case, maintaining the viability of the firm as a going concern, rather than maximizing its value, might be the owner’s primary objective.
Second, the results suggest that many small firms place internal limits on the amount they will borrow. Thus, many small firms cannot (or choose not to) separate investment and financing decisions, contrary to capital budgeting theory. Finally, the results suggest that the personal financial planning considerations of business owners may affect the investment and financing decisions of small firms. In particular, older owners are more conservative in their strategies than younger owners (older owners focus more on replacement activity and are more likely to report that they will wait for cash). These results conflict with an assumption of capital budgeting theory: that the transferability of ownership interests (at low cost) allows managers to separate the planning horizon of a business from the planning horizon of its owners. B. Planning Activity Exhibit 3 analyzes three dimensions of each firm’s planning environment: how frequently firms estimate cash flows in making capital budgeting decisions; whether they have written busi-ness plans; and whether they consider tax implications in making capital budgeting decisions.
Insert Exhibit 3 here Exhibit 3 reports that only 31 percent of the sample firms have a written business plan. Over 30 percent of the sample firms do not estimate future cash flows when making investment decisions, and 26 percent of the firms do not consider the tax implications of investment decisions. Thus, many small firms do not have a formal planning system that guides capital budgeting decisions. Firms with the highest growth rates (over 20 percent growth) are more likely to use each of these planning tools, particularly written business plans and consideration of tax effects. Similarly, firms that extend existing product lines or invest in new lines of business engage in more planning activities than the average sample firm. As firms expand, they use up more of their borrowing capacity, reducing their future financial flexibility (assuming that they face capital constraints).
For these firms, it may be essential to plan ahead, so the firm is not forced to pass up promising opportunities in the future. Newer firms (less than 6 years old) and younger owners (less than 45 years old) are more likely than other firms to use written business plans. This is an expected result, given that banks require evidence of planning before extension of credit to firms with short operating histories. The smallest firms (three or fewer employees) are less likely to make cash flow projections, while firms with ten or more employees are more likely to make these estimates. This finding supports conjectures made by Ang (1991) and Keasey and Watson (1993) that personnel constraints (incomplete management teams) may hamper small firms in planning. The planning activities of small firms are also strongly related to the educational background of the business owner. If the business owner does not have a college degree, the firm is less likely than the average firm to make cash flow projections or to use written business plans. If the business owner has an advanced/professional degree, the firm is more likely to engage in such activities.
C. Project Evaluation Methods Exhibit 4 summarizes responses about the primary tool firms use to assess a project’s financial viability: payback period, accounting rate of return, discounted cash flow analysis, “gut feel,” or combination. The most common response is the least sophisticated, gut feel—selected by 26 percent of the sample firms.8 Insert Exhibit 4 here The use of gut feel is strongly related to the business owner’s educational background. Owners without a college degree resort to it most frequently, and owners with advanced degrees least. The use of gut feel is also inversely related to a firm’s use of planning tools. Firms with written business plans and firms that make cash flow projections are significantly less likely to rely on gut feel. While the use of gut feel is concentrated in the least sophisticated of small firms, it is also widely used by firms that make primarily replacement investments.
A firm may have limited options when it replaces equipment, and estimating future cash flows (i.e., incremental maintenance costs or efficiency gains) for each option might be difficult. For example, if a firm must replace a delivery truck, it may be difficult for the firm to estimate differences in the future annual operating costs of two replacement vehicles under consideration. Moreover, if an investment is necessary for the firm’s survival (and the owner is committed to maintaining the business as a going concern), the maximization of firm value may not be the business owner’s primary objective. Instead, the owner may simply look for the alternative promising the required level of performance at the most reasonable cost. Thus, it is not surprising to find that small business owners use relatively unsophisticated methods of analysis to evaluate replacement options.
Gut feel is also used extensively by firms in the service industry. Although some service firms make substantial capital expenditures, the investments of many service firms might be lim-ited to business vehicles or office equipment. Because a firm’s primary considerations when evaluating this type of purchase decision may be cost, reliability, and product features, structuring a discounted cash flow analysis of these investments can be difficult. Payback period is the second most common response, selected by 19 percent of the sample. The payback period is used slightly more often by firms that will wait for cash, as expected. Firms using the payback period are significantly more likely than other firms to estimate future cash flows (because cash flow estimates are required for this calculation). Finally, use of the payback period appears to increase with the formal education of the business owner. These results suggest that the payback period conveys important economic information in at least some circumstances. For example, the payback period can be a rational project evaluation tool for small firms facing capital constraints (i.e., firms that do not operate in the perfect financial markets envisioned by capital budgeting theory). In this case, projects that return cash quickly could benefit a firm by easing future cash flow constraints.
The accounting rate of return is the next most frequent choice, identified by 14 percent of the firms as their primary evaluation method. The use of accounting rate of return increases with firms’ growth rates; it is significantly higher than the sample mean for firms entering new lines of business. Each of these characteristics can indicate high borrowing needs. The accounting rate of return is thus especially important if a firm must provide banks with periodic financial statements, or is required to comply with loan covenants based on financial statement ratios. The most theoretically correct method—discounted cash flow analysis—is the primary investment evaluation method of only 12 percent of the firms. Not surprisingly, owners with advanced/professional degrees are most likely to use this method; 17 percent of these firms identify it as their primary evaluation tool. Firms with written business plans and those that consider the tax implications of investments are also significantly more likely to use discounted cash flow techniques. Thus, firms using this project evaluation method are among the most sophisticated of the small firms.
Firms extending existing product lines are also significantly more likely to use discounted cash flow analysis. This result is evidence that discounted cash flow analysis is most useful when evaluating projects with cash flow profiles similar to current operations (such as projects extending existing product lines), because it is easier to obtain reliable cash flow estimates in this case. Another noteworthy finding is that 18 percent of the firms in business less than six years use this method, the most of any age group. Although younger firms are less likely to have complete management teams in place, it is also possible that banks may encourage newer firms to demonstrate adequate planning (and project evaluation) procedures before qualifying for credit. Of the specific evaluation techniques firms could choose from, combination of methods was selected least often, by 11 percent of firms. Use of this approach does not appear to be strongly related to any of the firm characteristics listed in Exhibit 4.
The results in Exhibit 4 are very different from results in Graham and Harvey (2001). Approximately 75 percent of their firms evaluate projects using estimates of project net present value or internal rate of return. The vast majority of their firms also appear to consider multiple measures of project value in making investment decisions. However, even the smaller firms in the Graham and Harvey study are much larger than the firms in our sample, and are thus more likely to have complete management teams. It is therefore not surprising that their firms use more sophisticated methods of project analysis. D. Multivariate Analysis To provide a multivariate perspective on how small firms make investment decisions, we use multinomial logit to jointly identify factors influencing the choice of a project evaluation tool. This technique is appropriate when an unordered response, such as a set of project evaluation tools, has more than two outcomes. Exhibit 5 reports the results of this exercise; gut feel is the omitted category.
Thus, the coefficients listed in Exhibit 5 should be interpreted as the increase (a positive coefficient) or the reduction (a negative coefficient) in the log odds between the evaluation tool specified and gut feel. Insert Exhibit 5 here The results show that firms using any of the formal investment evaluation tools are more likely to make cash flow projections than firms using gut feel. Firms using the accounting rate of return, discounted cash flow, or a combination of methods are more likely to consider tax implications when they evaluate projects. These results corroborate the results in Exhibit 4—firms using gut feel to evaluate projects have much less structured planning environments than other firms. Exhibit 5 also identifies factors that differentiate between firms attaching primary importance to the various investment evaluation tools. The results suggest that capital constraints and the type of investment (e.g., replacement, expand product line, new product line) can influence how firms evaluate projects.
The wait for cash coefficient is positive and significant for both payback period and discounted cash flow analysis. These results suggest that firms committed to funding projects internally are not necessarily irrational or unsophisticated. Instead, the decision to wait for cash might be an acknowledgment that the firm does not operate in a perfect financial market, and faces capital constraints. Because the firm knows it may not be able to fund all valuable projects, it will evaluate projects using the payback period (to help it allocate investment funds over a multiyear horizon) or discounted cash flow analysis (to help it identify the best projects).
The accounting rate of return is frequently the choice of firms pursuing either growth strategy: expand product line or new product line. The coefficients for both of these variables are positive and significant for accounting rate of return. As a firm grows, it may need to raise new capital, either by obtaining a bank loan or by attracting new equity investors. In either case, the firm’s historical and projected financial statements will be used to communicate information about the firm to investors. The accounting rate of return can be valuable to firms pursuing growth strategies because it provides information about how a project will affect a firm’s finan-cial statements (and its ability to meet accounting-based loan covenants).
The importance of discounted cash flow analysis depends on the type of growth the firm is pursuing. The coefficient for expanding an existing product line is positive and significant for discounted cash flows, but the coefficient for new product line is not. Firms will use discounted cash flows to evaluate projects that extend existing product lines because future cash flow estimates can be based on past performance in this case. But, if it is contemplating a new product line, where obtaining future cash flow estimates can be difficult, the firm is less likely to use a discounted cash flow method of analysis.
IV. Summary Firms with fewer than 250 employees analyze potential investments using much less sophisticated methods than those recommended by capital budgeting theory. In particular, survey results show these businesses use discounted cash flow analysis less frequently than gut feel, payback period, and accounting rate of return. Many small-business owners have limited formal education, and their firms may have incomplete management teams. Therefore, a lack of financial sophistication is an important reason why the capital budgeting practices of small firms differ so dramatically from the recommendations of theory. Small staff sizes also constrain the amount of capital budgeting analyses the firms can perform. Beyond this, there are also substantive reasons a small firm might choose to use methods other than discounted cash flow analysis to evaluate projects. The primary reason is that many small businesses do not operate in the perfect capital markets that capital budgeting theory assumes.
Most of the firms in our sample are very small (with fewer than 10 employees); they have short operating histories (almost half have been in business under 10 years), and their owners are not college edu-cated. These characteristics may limit their bank credit, posing credit constraints. If so, these firms may be required to finance some future investments using internally generated funds, and it would not be surprising for the owners to consider measures of project liquidity (such as the payback period) when making investment decisions. Second, many of the investments that small firms make cannot easily be evaluated using the discounted cash flow techniques recommended by capital budgeting theory. Many investments by small firms are not discretionary (a firm either makes a specific investment or it goes out of business), and future cash flows can be difficult to quantify.
For example, if a firm is introducing a new product line, estimates of future cash flows can be imprecise (and market research studies required to obtain better cash flow estimates may not be cost effective). When future cash flows cannot be easily estimated, discounted cash flow analysis may not provide a reliable estimate of a project’s contribution to firm value, and it is not surprising that a firm might resort to gut feel to analyze the investment. For these reasons, small firms face capital budgeting challenges that differ from those faced by larger firms. Thus, it is possible that optimal capital budgeting methods for large and small firms may differ. However, a fully integrated capital budgeting theory—identifying the conditions under which discounted cash flow analysis is appropriate—has yet to be developed. The question of how to better tailor the prescriptions of capital budgeting theory for small firms remains unanswered.
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Decision Criteria in Small New Zealand Businesses,” Small Enterprise Research 8 (No. 1), 44–55.
Exhibit 1 Sample Description The weighted distributions of the responses to the National Federation of Independent Business’ Reinvesting in the Business Survey conducted by the Gallup Organization. No. of Obs % of Total Industry Service Construction/manufacturing Retail/wholesale Other Real 2-year sales growth 20 percent or higher 10-19 percent +/- 10 percent -10 percent or lower No answer Business age < 6 years 6-10 years 11-20 years 21+ years No answer Employment 1 2-3 4-10 10+ Owner education level Less than college degree College degree Advanced/prof. degree No answer Owner age < 35 years 35-44 years 45-54 years 55+ years No answer Total 155 194 378 65 194 179 200 187 32 183 173 213 216 7 127 233 287 145 415 260 105 12 81 194 244 255 18 792 20 24 48 8 24 23 25 24 4 23 22 27 27 1 16 29 36 18 52 33 13 2 10 24 31 32 2 100
Exhibit 2 Investment Activity Percentage distributions are presented for the question, “Measured in dollars, what was the purpose of the largest share of the investments made in your business in the last 12 months?” The last column presents the percentage of all firms that would delay investments until they could be financed internally with cash. ++ (– –) indicates that the cell percentage is significantly greater than (less than) the column total, at a 5% significance level, and + (–) indicates that the cell percentage is significantly greater than (less than) the column total, at a 10% significance level, using a binomial Z-score. Type of Investment Recently Made Expand New Existing Product Replace Product Line Other Industry Service Construction/manufacturing Retail/wholesale Other Real 2-year sales growth 20 percent or higher 10-19 percent +/- 10 percent -10 percent or lower Business age < 6 years 6-10 years 11-20 years 21+ years Employment 1 2-3 4-10 10+ Owner education level Less than college degree College degree Advanced/prof. degree Owner age