We almost never start valuing a company with a blank slate. All too often, our views on a company are formed before we start inputting the numbers into the models that we use and not surprisingly, our conclusions tend to reflect our biases. We will begin by considering the sources of bias in valuation and then move on to evaluate how bias manifests itself in most valuations. We will close with a discussion of how best to minimize or at least deal with bias in valuations.
The bias in valuation starts with the companies we choose to value. These choices are almost never random, and how we make them can start laying the foundation for bias. It may be that we have read something in the press (good or bad) about the company or heard from an expert that it was under or over valued. Thus, we already begin with a perception about the company that we are about to value. We add to the bias when we collect the information we need to value the firm. The annual report and other financial statements include not only the accounting numbers but also management discussions of performance, often putting the best possible spin on the numbers. With many larger companies, it is easy to access what other analysts following the stock think about these companies. Zacks, I/B/E/S and First Call, to name three services among many, provide summaries of how many analysts are bullish and bearish about the stock, and we can often access their complete valuations. Finally, we have the market's own estimate of the value of the company- the market price - adding to the mix. Valuations that stray too far from this number make analysts uncomfortable, since they may reflect large valuation errors (rather than market mistakes).
In many valuations, there are institutional factors that add to this already substantial bias. For instance, it is an acknowledged fact that equity research analysts are more likely to issue buy rather than sell recommendations, i.e., that they are more likely to find firms to be undervalued than overvalued.1 This can be traced partly to the difficulties analysts face in obtaining access and collecting information on firms that they have issued sell recommendations on, and partly to pressure that they face from portfolio managers, some of whom might have large positions in the stock, and from their own firm's investment banking arms which have other profitable relationships with the firms in question.
The reward and punishment structure associated with finding companies to be under and over valued is also a contributor to bias. An analyst whose compensation is dependent upon whether she finds a firm is under or over valued will be biased in her conclusions. This should explain why acquisition valuations are so often biased upwards. The analysis of the deal, which is usually done by the acquiring firm's investment banker, who also happens to be responsible for carrying the deal to its successful conclusion, can come to one of two conclusions. One is to find that the deal is seriously over priced and recommend rejection, in which case the analyst receives the eternal gratitude of the
1 There are approximately five times as many buy recommendations issued by analysts on Wall Street as there are sell recommendations.
stockholders of the acquiring firm but little else. The other is to find that the deal makes sense (no matter what the price) and to reap the ample financial windfall from getting the deal done.
There are three ways in which our views on a company (and the biases we have) can manifest themselves in value. The first is in the inputs that we use in the valuation. When we value companies, we constantly come to forks in the road where we have to make assumptions to move on. These assumptions can be optimistic or pessimistic. For a company with high operating margins now, we can either assume that competition will drive the margins down to industry averages very quickly (pessimistic) or that the company will be able to maintain its margins for an extended period (optimistic). The path we choose will reflect our prior biases. It should come as no surprise then that the end value that we arrive at is reflective of the optimistic or pessimistic choices we made along the way.
The second is in what we will call post-valuation tinkering, where analysts revisit assumptions after a valuation in an attempt to get a value closer to what they had expected to obtain starting off. Thus, an analyst who values a company at $ 15 per share, when the market price is $ 25, may revise his growth rates upwards and his risk downwards to come up a higher value, if she believed that the company was under valued to begin with.
The third is to leave the value as is but attribute the difference between the value we estimate and the value we think is the right one to a qualitative factor such as synergy or strategic considerations. This is a common device in acquisition valuation where analysts are often called upon to justify the unjustifiable. In fact, the use of premiums and discounts, where we augment or reduce estimated value, provides a window on the bias in the process. The use of premiums - control and synergy are good examples - is commonplace in acquisition valuations, where the bias is towards pushing value upwards (to justify high acquisition prices). The use of discounts - illiquidity and minority discounts, for instance - are more typical in private company valuations for tax and divorce court, where the objective is often to report as low a value as possible for a company.
Bias cannot be regulated or legislated out of existence. Analysts are human and bring their biases to the table. However, there are ways in which we can mitigate the effects of bias on valuation:
1. Reduce institutional pressures: As we noted earlier, a significant portion of bias can be attributed to institutional factors. Equity research analysts in the 1990s, for instance, in addition to dealing with all of the standard sources of bias had to grapple with the demand from their employers that they bring in investment banking business. Institutions that want honest sell-side equity research should protect their equity research analysts who issue sell recommendations on companies, not only from irate companies but also from their own sales people and portfolio managers.
2. De-link valuations from reward/punishment: Any valuation process where the reward or punishment is conditioned on the outcome of the valuation will result in biased valuations. In other words, if we want acquisition valuations to be unbiased, we have to separate the deal analysis from the deal making to reduce bias.
3. No pre-commitments: Decision makers should avoid taking strong public positions on the value of a firm before the valuation is complete. An acquiring firm that comes up with a price prior to the valuation of a target firm has put analysts in an untenable position, where they are called upon to justify this price. In far too many cases, the decision on whether a firm is under or over valued precedes the actual valuation, leading to seriously biased analyses.
4. Self-Awareness: The best antidote to bias is awareness. An analyst who is aware of the biases he or she brings to the valuation process can either actively try to confront these biases when making input choices or open the process up to more objective points of view about a company's future.
5. Honest reporting: In Bayesian statistics, analysts are required to reveal their priors (biases) before they present their results from an analysis. Thus, an environmentalist will have to reveal that he or she strongly believes that there is a hole in the ozone layer before presenting empirical evidence to that effect. The person reviewing the study can then factor that bias in while looking at the conclusions. Valuations would be much more useful if analysts revealed their biases up front.
While we cannot eliminate bias in valuations, we can try to minimize its impact by designing valuation processes that are more protected from overt outside influences and by report our biases with our estimated values.
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