NYU Stern
Share / Print
Opinion

Thoughts on Intrinsic Value

By Aswath Damodaran, Kerschner Family Chair in Finance Education

damodaran opinion article 1
I know this post will strike some of you as splitting hairs and an abstraction but it is a topic that fascinates me. A few weeks ago, I got an email asking a very simple question: How do you estimate the "intrinsic" value of gold? This, of course, raised two key questions:

a. What is intrinsic value?
b. Does every asset have an intrinsic value?

On the first question, here is my definition of intrinsic value. It is the value that you would attach to an asset, based upon its fundamentals: cash flows, expected growth and risk. The essence of intrinsic value is that you can estimate it in a vacuum for a specific asset, without any information on how the market is pricing other assets (though it does certainly help to have that information). At its core, if you stay true to principles, a discounted cash flow model is an intrinsic valuation model, because you are valuing an asset based upon its expected cash flows, adjusted for risk. Even a book value approach is an intrinsic valuation approach, where you are assuming that the accountant's estimate of what fixed and current assets are worth is the true value of a business.

This definition then answers the second question. Only assets that are expected to generate cash flows can have intrinsic values. Thus, a bond (coupons), a stock (dividends), a business (operating cash flows) or commercial real estate (net rental income) all have intrinsic values, though computing those values can be easier for some assets than others. At the other extreme, fine art and baseball cards do not have intrinsic value, since they generate no cash flows (though they may generate a more amorphous utility for their owners) and value, in a sense, is in entirely in the eye of the beholder. Residential real estate is closer to the latter than the former and estimating the intrinsic value of your house is an exercise in futility.

So, how do people value assets where intrinsic value cannot be estimated? They look at what other people are paying for similar or comparable assets: i.e., they use relative valuation. Thus, an auction house sets a value for your Picasso, based on what other Picassos have sold for in the recent past, adjusted for differences (which is where the experts come in). The realtor sets the price for residential real estate, based on what other residences in the neighborhood have sold for, adjusted for differences again. In fact, let's face it: this is the way even assets that have intrinsic value are evaluated for the most part. Thus, the investment banker who takes Groupon public may go through the process of providing a discounted cash flow model to back up the valuation, but the pricing of the IPO will be determined largely by the euphoric reception that Linkedin got a few weeks ago.

I don't intend this to come across as snobbish, but I think we need to clarify terms. Most people who claim to be valuation specialists, experts or appraisers are really pricing specialists, experts and appraisers. In other words, what separates them in terms of skills is in how good they are in finding comparable assets and adjusting for differences across assets. In fact, I have a counter question, when I am asked the question of what the value of a business or stock is: Do you want a value for your business or a price for your business? The answers can be very different.

In closing, though, let me try to answer the question that triggered this post: what is the "intrinsic value" of gold? In my view, gold does not have an intrinsic value but it does have a relative value. For centuries, gold (because of its durability and relative scarcity) has been an alternative to financial assets (that are tied to paper currency). Unlike the gold standard days, where the linkage between paper currency and gold was explicit, the value of paper currency rests entirely on trust in central banks and governments. As a consequence, the price of gold has varied inversely with the degree of trust that we have in these authorities. Though not a perfect indicator, gold prices have surged when a subset of investors have lost that faith, i.e., they fear that the currency is being debased (inflation) or systematic government failures. What makes this monent in economic history disquieting is that we are getting discordant signals from the market: the low interest rates on treasuries (US, German and Japanese) suggests that investors think expected inflation will be low in the future whereas higher prices for precious metals (gold, silver) give support to the argument that investors (or at least a subset of them) believe the opposite. One of these two groups will be wrong and I would not want to be in that group, when there is a final reckoning.

As published in Musings on Markets.