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When most hear the term residual income, they think of excess cash or disposable income. Although that definition is correct in the scope of personal finance, in terms of equity valuation residual income is the income generated by a firm after accounting for the true cost of its capital. You might be asking, "but don't companies already account for their cost of capital in their interest expense?" Yes and no. Interest expense on the income statement only accounts for a firm's cost of its debt, ignoring its cost of equity, such as dividends payouts and other equity costs. Looking at the cost of equity another way, think of it as the shareholders' opportunity cost, or the required rate of return. The residual income model attempts to adjust a firm's future earnings estimates, to compensate for the equity cost and place a more accurate value to a firm. Although the return to equity holders is not a legal requirement like the return to bondholders, in order to attract investors firms must compensate them for the investment risk exposure.
The residual income approach offers both positives and negatives when compared to the more often used dividend discount and DCF methods. On the plus side, residual income models make use of data readily available from a firm's financial statements and can be used well with firms who do not pay dividends or do not generate positive free cash flow. Most importantly, as we discussed earlier, residual income models look at the economic profitability of a firm rather than just its accounting profitability. The biggest drawback of the residual income method is the fact that it relies so heavily on forward-looking estimates of a firm's financial statements, leaving forecasts vulnerable to psychological biases or historic misrepresentation of a firms financial statements.