The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum – a Postscript

A while back, I posted a two-part series called “The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum.” In the first installment I explained the calculation and underlying logic of CoC, and in the second I discussed some of the pitfalls of overreliance on this particular measure.

big pile of dollars

I try to keep my ear to the ground by reading and sometimes contributing to investor forums, where I continue to see a good deal of discussion on the question of what is or what should be the metric of choice for real estate investors. My unofficial and unscientific gauge of the general sentiment is that most investors agree that cash flow is king. Although I would be reluctant to crown any single measure as the absolute be-all and end-all for property analysis, I agree that cash flow is indeed a critical measure of the health of an investment property.

So what’s the big deal? What concerns me is that I see a kind of tunnel vision on this topic. I frequently hear some variation of these two statements bundled together: “Cash-on-cash return is the only reliable metric and the only one I really need,” and “IRR and Discounted Cash Flow analysis are bogus – they’re a waste of time because you just can’t predict the future.” To put it simply, these folks are saying that they trust CoC because it looks at the here and now, and they distrust IRR/DCF because it tries to look into the future.

On the surface, that argument might seem reasonable enough. Cash-on-Cash return is the property’s expected first-year cash flow before taxes, divided by the amount of cash invested to make the purchase; it’s quick and easy to calculate, and it does indeed focus on a more-or-less tangible present. A strong CoC unarguably provides a good sign that your investment is off on the right foot.

Is that the end of the story – or should it be? I think this narrow focus can cause an investor to miss some vital issues.

By adopting the “can’t predict the future” argument, aren’t you ignoring what investing is all about? You don’t have a crystal ball, but still — isn’t investing about the future, and isn’t the ability to make sensible choices in an uncertain environment a key trait of the successful investor?

I find it difficult to accept the argument that I should make a decision to buy or not to buy an investment property based on its first-year cash flow alone and without regard to projections of future performance. Ironically, there is a hidden message in this point of view: If the first year performance data is sufficient, then apparently I should believe that such data will be representative of how well the property will perform all the time. In other words, it really is OK to predict the future, so long as I believe the future will always be like the present.

I would argue that it is in fact less speculative to make the kind of projections that you typically see in a Discounted Cash Flow analysis, where you look at the anticipated cash flow over a period of time and use those projections to estimate an Internal Rate of Return over the entire holding period.

With any given property, there may be items that you can forecast with a reasonable degree of confidence. For example, on the revenue side you may have commercial leases that specify the rent for five years, ten, or even more. You may even be able to anticipate a potential loss of revenue at a point in the future when a commercial lease expires and you need to deal with rollover vacancy, tenant improvements, and leasing commissions.

You could be looking at a double- or triple-net property where you are insulated from many or most of the uncertainties about future operating expenses like taxes, insurance and maintenance.

Or, with residential property, you may have a history of occupancy percentage and rent increases that permit a credible forecast of future revenue.

Then there is the more basic question, why are you analyzing this property at all? Why are you running the numbers and making this CoC calculation? Are you trying to establish a current market value, as a commercial appraiser might? Or are you trying to make a more personal decision, i.e., will this particular property possibly meet your investment goals? And what are those goals?

Seems like I just took a nice simple metric and wove it into a more complicated story. Sorry, but in your heart of hearts you know if investing really were that simple, then everyone with a pulse would be a huge success. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be so complicated either, so long as you approach it in a reasonable and orderly way.

That orderly approach begins with deciding what you are looking to get out of this investment. Maybe you want to hold it for a few years to get strong cash flow and then sell it, hopefully for a profit. Perhaps you intend to hold it long term, less concerned with immediate cash flow (so long it as it positive), and then sell the property much later to fund your children’s college costs or your own retirement. In either case, if your plan is to buy and hold then there is one thing you can’t ignore: the future.

This approach continues with projection of the revenue, expenses, potential resale, and rate-of-return metrics, running out to your intended investment horizon. Perhaps key here is the realization that you shouldn’t really expect to nail your projections with a single try. Consider several variations upon future performance: best-case, worst-case and somewhere in-between scenarios to give yourself a sense of the range of possible outcomes.

All this brings us back to the duel between the Cash-on-Cash metric and DCF/IRR. I believe if you rely only on the former, then you are not just saying, “You can’t predict the future.” You’re saying, “If the first year looks good, then that’s all I need to know.” This is, quite literally, a short-sighted investment strategy. The takeaway here is that there should be no duel between metrics at all; that prudent investors can use Cash-on-Cash to get an initial reading of the property’s immediate performance, but they should then extend their analysis to encompass the entire lifecycle of the investment. To quote the folks at NASA (who, after all, really are rocket scientists), “It takes more than one kind of telescope to see the light.”

—-Frank Gallinelli

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