Go Beyond Internal Rate of Return

In theory, there is a simple rule for choosing among competing investment projects: sort the list of projects based on their expected internal rate of return and select those with the highest IRRs until the budget is fully committed. In practice, however, the effectiveness of this approach is constrained by the quality of the assumptions that go into the valuations and by the influence of additional criteria that are not transparent or not explicit in selection decisions.

A good way to improve the quality of assumptions is to require all business cases for major investment projects to include a model that shows the important business drivers. This makes critical assumptions explicit and allows decision makers to understand the impact of the key drivers. Moreover, it facilitates simple sensitivity and scenario analyses. Managers can calculate the breakeven values of critical variables that must be achieved for the project to generate value. This approach will help avoid focusing only on the expected rate of return in a hypothetical base case.

At many companies, criteria beyond financial returns also come into play in making investment decisions. But if such factors are not made explicit, they can distort the decision-making process and encourage political behavior. One European industrial conglomerate addresses this challenge by evaluating investment projects based on four explicit criteria that are summarized in a simple scoring model: strategic profile (growth potential and fit with the strategy of the underlying business), financial profile (expected project return and short-term impact on EBIT), risk profile (payback time and assessment of market risks), and resource profile (fit with existing capabilities and required management attention).

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