In the realm of finance and investing, understanding various financial metrics is crucial for making informed decisions. One such metric that plays a significant role in evaluating a company’s financial health is free cash flow (FCF). In this blog post, we will delve into the concept of free cash flow, explore how it is calculated, discuss its differences from net income and EBITDA, highlight its importance, address its limitations, and finally, shed light on how and why FCF can be utilized as a part of the stock selection process. Throughout the article, we will provide relevant examples to enhance comprehension.

1: What is Free Cash Flow?

Free cash flow (FCF) measures the amount of cash generated by a business after accounting for all expenses, investments, and working capital requirements. It represents the cash available for distribution to shareholders, debt repayment, or further investment in the business. FCF is an important indicator of a company’s financial strength and ability to generate sustainable cash flows.

free cash flow

2: Calculating Free Cash Flow

To calculate free cash flow, one must start with a company’s operating cash flow (OCF) and subtract its capital expenditures (CAPEX). Free Cash Flow can be calculated as follows:

Operating Cash Flow (OCF)

Operating cash flow represents the cash generated from a company’s core operations. It includes revenue from sales, payments received from customers, and the costs associated with producing goods or providing services. OCF is calculated using the following formula:

OCF = Net Income + Depreciation + Amortization + Changes in Working Capital

Capital Expenditures (CAPEX)

Capital expenditures refer to investments made by a company in long-term assets such as property, plant, and equipment (PP&E). It is important for a company to make these investments for the growth and expansion of company’s operational activities. CAPEX can be found in a company’s financial statements under the “Investing Activities” section.

3: Types Of Free Cash Flow

In the labyrinthine world of financial statements, Free Cash Flow (FCF) shines as a beacon of clarity, revealing the true cash-generating power of a company. It’s the lifeblood remaining after operational expenses and investment needs are met, showcasing how much actual cash a company has left over for dividends, growth, or even rainy day reserves. But there’s not just one kind of FCF; it comes in distinct varieties, each offering a unique lens on a company’s financial health.

1. Free Cash Flow to the Firm (FCFF):

This gem represents the total cash bounty available to all stakeholders, including creditors and investors. To unearth it, you start with earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). Then, you subtract interest payments, taxes, and capital expenditures (the cost of maintaining and expanding the business). Think of it as the company’s total cash-generating capacity.

FCFF Calculation:

FCFF = EBITDA – Interest Expense – Taxes – Capital Expenditures

2. Free Cash Flow to Equity (FCFE):

This treasure chest belongs solely to the shareholders. To access it, take the FCFF and deduct any dividends paid out. This reveals the cash available for shareholder-specific rewards like buybacks or additional dividends.

FCFE Calculation:

FCFE = FCFF – Dividends Paid

3. Free Cash Flow from Operating Activities (FCFO):

This gem comes directly from the company’s core operations, showcasing its ability to generate cash through everyday activities. To find it, simply head to the cash flow statement and locate the “cash flow from operating activities” line.

FCFO Calculation:

FCFO = Cash Flow from Operating Activities

Each FCF type offers a distinct perspective on a company’s financial picture. FCFF provides a holistic view of its overall cash generation, FCFE reveals the shareholder-specific bounty, and FCFO showcases the operational efficiency. By understanding these types and their calculations, investors can make informed decisions about which companies hold the most valuable financial treasures.

Remember, FCF isn’t a magic formula, and like any financial metric, it should be considered alongside other factors like industry trends, management quality, and future prospects. But armed with the knowledge of different FCF types and their calculations, you’ll be well on your way to navigating the financial landscape with confidence, uncovering the true gems among the corporate jewels.

4: Differences between Free Cash Flow, Net Income, and EBITDA

While free cash flow, net income, and EBITDA all provide insights into a company’s financial performance, they differ in their focus and underlying calculations.

Net Income

Net income, also known as profit or earnings, represents the total revenue minus all expenses incurred during a specific period. It is derived from a company’s income statement and provides an overview of profitability. However, net income does not consider non-cash expenses such as depreciation or changes in working capital.


EBITDA or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization provides a measure of a company’s operating performance by excluding non-operating expenses and non-cash items. EBITDA allows for comparisons between companies with different capital structures or tax rates. It does not, however, consider changes in working capital or capital expenditures.

Free Cash Flow

Unlike net income and EBITDA, free cash flow focuses on the actual cash generated by a business. It takes into account not only profitability but also the company’s investment in assets and working capital. By deducting CAPEX from operating cash flow, FCF provides a clearer picture of a company’s ability to generate cash for various purposes.

5: Importance of Free Cash Flow

Free cash flow is an essential metric for several reasons:

1. Evaluating Financial Health

FCF allows investors and analysts to assess a company’s financial health by examining its ability to generate cash after meeting operating expenses and capital requirements. A positive and growing FCF indicates that a company has sufficient liquidity to cover its obligations and pursue growth opportunities.

2. Assessing Sustainability of Dividends

Companies that consistently generate strong FCF are more likely to sustain dividend payments to shareholders. FCF acts as a reliable indicator of a company’s ability to distribute cash while maintaining its operations.

3. Funding Growth Opportunities

Positive free cash flow enables companies to invest in research and development, acquisitions, or other growth initiatives without relying heavily on external financing. FCF provides flexibility and reduces dependency on debt or equity markets.

4. Debt Repayment

Free cash flow can be used to repay debt obligations. Companies with ample FCF are better positioned to reduce their debt burden and improve their creditworthiness.

5. Shareholder Value Creation

Investors often look for companies that consistently generate positive FCF as it indicates efficient management of resources. Positive FCF allows companies to reward shareholders through share buybacks or dividend payments, thereby creating value for investors.

6: Limitations of Free Cash Flow

While free cash flow is a valuable metric, it is important to be aware of its limitations:

1. Timing of Cash Flows

FCF considers cash flows over a specific period, which may not reflect the timing of expenses or revenue recognition accurately. It is essential to analyze trends in FCF over multiple periods to gain a comprehensive understanding of a company’s financial performance.

2. Capital Intensive Industries

Companies operating in capital-intensive industries may have higher capital expenditures compared to their operating cash flows. This can result in negative or lower FCF even though the company might be generating profits

3. Working Capital Variations

Changes in working capital can significantly impact FCF. For instance, an increase in accounts receivable or inventory may tie up cash temporarily, reducing FCF despite healthy sales.

4. Non-Recurring Items

One-time expenses or gains can distort FCF calculations. It is crucial to assess whether such items are likely to recur in the future or are exceptional events.

5. Quality of Earnings

FCF relies on accurate reporting of net income and operating cash flow figures. In cases where earnings management or aggressive accounting practices are employed, FCF may not provide an accurate representation of a company’s financial health.

7: Using Free Cash Flow in Stock Selection Process

Free cash flow can be a valuable tool for investors when selecting stocks. By analyzing FCF alongside other financial metrics, investors gain insights into a company’s fundamental strength and growth potential. Here are some key considerations when using FCF in the stock selection process:

1. Compare FCF with Peers

Comparing a company’s FCF with its industry peers helps identify outperformers or companies with stronger financial positions. A consistently positive FCF compared to competitors indicates better financial management.

2. Assess FCF Growth Rate

Evaluating the growth rate of a company’s FCF over multiple periods helps identify trends and potential red flags. A consistently growing FCF suggests improving profitability and operational efficiency.

3. Analyze FCF Margin

FCF margin is calculated by dividing free cash flow by total revenue. A higher FCF margin indicates that the company generates more cash relative to its revenue, which could signify better cost management or pricing power.

4. Consider FCF Yield

FCF yield is calculated by dividing free cash flow per share by the stock price. It represents the return on investment generated by the company’s FCF per share. Comparing FCF yields across different stocks helps identify undervalued opportunities.

5. Monitor FCF-to-Debt Ratio

Analyzing a company’s FCF-to-debt ratio provides insights into its ability to service debt obligations using internally generated cash flows. A higher ratio indicates lower solvency risk and better financial stability.

8: Examples for Better Understanding

Example 1: Company A vs Company B

Let’s compare Company A and Company B in the same industry:

ItemCompany ACompany B
Income Statement
Net Income$5 million$8 million
Cash Flow Statement
Depreciation$2 million$1 million
Capital Expenditures (CAPEX)$3 million$5 million
Changes in Working Capital (WC)$1 million$0 million
Free Cash Flow (FCF)$5 million+$2 million – $3 million + $1 million = $5 million$8 million+ $1 million – $5 million + $0 million = $4 million

Company A OCF = Net Income + Depreciation + Changes in WC
OCF = $5 million + $2 million + $1 million = $8 million
FCF = $8 million – $3 million = $5 million

Company B OCF = Net Income + Depreciation + Changes in WC
OCF = $8 million + $1 million + $0 million = $9 million
FCF = $9 million – $5 million = $4 million

In this example, even though Company A has lower net income than Company B, it generates higher free cash flow due to lower CAPEX and positive changes in working capital.

Example 2: Analyzing FCF Growth Rate

Let’s analyze the free cash flow growth rate of Company X over three years:
Year 2018 2019 2020
Free Cash Flow $10 million $12 million $15 million
FCF Growth Rate = ((FCF2020 – FCF2018) / FCF2018) x 100%
FCF Growth Rate = (($15 million – $10 million) / $10 million) x 100%
FCF Growth Rate = 50%
In this example, Company X demonstrates consistent growth in free cash flow over the three-year period, indicating improving financial performance.


Understanding free cash flow is crucial for investors and analysts alike. It provides valuable insights into a company’s ability to generate sustainable cash flows and make informed decisions regarding dividend payments, debt repayment, growth initiatives, and shareholder value creation. By considering free cash flow alongside other financial metrics during the stock selection process, investors can identify companies with strong financial positions and growth potential. However, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of free cash flow and conduct thorough analysis before making investment decisions.
Remember that analyzing financial metrics should be done in conjunction with other research methods such as qualitative analysis and market research to ensure well-informed investment decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Can free cash flow be negative?

A1: Yes, free cash flow can be negative if a company’s operating cash flow is insufficient to cover its capital expenditures.

Q2: How often should I analyze free cash flow?

A2: It is advisable to review free cash flow on an annual basis while considering trends over multiple periods for a comprehensive assessment.

Q3: Is free cash flow more important than net income?

A3: Free cash flow provides additional insights into a company’s actual cash generation capabilities beyond net income alone. Both metrics should be analyzed together for a comprehensive evaluation.

Q4: Can companies manipulate free cash flow?

A4: While it is possible for companies to manipulate free cash flow through accounting practices, careful analysis of financial statements can help identify any anomalies.

Q5: Should I solely rely on free cash flow for stock selection?

A5: No, free cash flow should be considered alongside other financial metrics and qualitative factors when selecting stocks to gain a holistic understanding of a company’s prospects.

Reference : http://www.fool.com