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Lowering the Bar

Make bets on foreign markets when conventional hurdle rates say no? Absolutely, says Bestfoods.

1Aug

There are plenty of good reasons why U.S. corporate executives don't invest in Russia. There are good reasons they pass up projects in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Not only are the political and economic risks far greater than in the United States, so is the challenge of operating in a foreign market with different laws, consumer tastes, and business customs.


And with the U.S. economy's spectacular performance over the last decade, why bother with the political instability, the double- digit inflation, and the local currencies that can implode overnight? One reason: "That's where the growth is," says Robert Gluck, vice president and treasurer of Bestfoods, which has 130 manufacturing plants around the world, producing soups, mayonnaise, and other foods for 110 different markets. Its performance recently attracted a lucrative acquisition bid from Dutch food giant Unilever Plc.


Few U.S. companies, however, are chasing that growth. While strategic planners are willing to make large, risky technology investments of uncertain benefit, the same isn't true of foreign investments, whose risks and rewards are similarly difficult to quantify. U.S. companies are starting to invest significantly more capital in overseas markets, but they still trail their counterparts in the developed economies of Europe in proportion to the size of their economies, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


The reason, says Justin Pettit, a partner in the New York office of consulting firm Stern Stewart & Co., is that companies prefer to invest in markets they understand--namely, their own--and often set arbitrarily high hurdle rates of return for international projects. Many large multinationals, in fact, tack on premiums as high as 10 percentage points over the firm's domestic cost of capital--even after accounting for inflation differentials, he says. Granted, low hurdle rates for investments can come back to haunt businesses. Just ask the Japanese companies whose loose purse strings in Asia during the 1980s continue to handicap the Japanese economy. But, says Pettit, "many companies are stifling good growth opportunities because of the high- risk premiums they use on foreign investments."



Where The Growth Is

For Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey­based Bestfoods, going global was a no-brainer. In a good year, the highly competitive food industry can expect 2 percent to 3 percent organic volume growth in North America and Western Europe. Very often, the only opportunity for increasing profits in these mature markets is through cost-cutting or acquisition. That's not the case in emerging markets. "We're growing by 15 percent annually in Latin America versus mid- single digits in North America," says Gluck. Unlike other U.S.-based food manufacturers such as Campbell's, Sara Lee, or Hershey, Bestfoods has significant international operations, with about 22 percent of its revenues coming from outside the United States and Western Europe. And the aggressive international strategy has certainly paid off for shareholders. While competitors' stock prices remain mired in a slump, Unilever offered Bestfoods a hefty 40-plus percent premium late last spring. "It was [Bestfoods's] emerging- markets exposure and its distribution abilities that got the deal done," says Lehman Bros. analyst Andrew Lazar.


While Bestfoods has been inclined toward foreign markets ever since predecessor companies Corn Products Co. and Swiss-based Knorr merged in 1959, its investment planning, until recently, was largely driven by the same gut instincts that most large companies use. In Bestfoods's case, however, in-country experience and local management inclined it to take risks rather than play it safe. Then, in 1998, as part of its implementation of Economic Value Added (EVA), Bestfoods and Stern Stewart began developing a more analytical model for setting investment hurdle rates in different markets.


The standard practice is to apply the principles of the capital asset pricing model (CAPM), where the net present value (NPV) of estimated future cash flows from an investment is calculated. If the NPV is greater than the cost of the project, then the investment makes sense. For North American investments, the future cash flows are discounted using the firm's average weighted cost of capital. With overseas investments, the process gets more complicated. Not only does the investment carry more systematic risk (such as inflation and currency devaluation) and sovereign risk (such as unfavorable legal or tax changes, expropriation of assets, or war), but it also carries more nonsystematic risk--risk specific to the venture at hand. These could include product acceptance, start-up cost overruns, or labor problems.


Rather than isolate and quantify these elements of risk, most companies simply add on a premium to the firm's domestic cost of capital to reflect the extra risk. Thus, a hurdle rate for an investment in China might be set at cost of capital plus 5 percent. Brazil might get a 10 percent premium. "There's a lot of ad hoc decision-making when it comes to setting hurdle rates," says Rafael Resendes, of capital markets advisory firm Applied Finance Group, in Chicago. Instead of systematically analyzing risks and potential returns, executives end up making or not making investments for subjective, strategic reasons. The problem is, because of home market bias, many executives end up artificially inflating the costs of capital in foreign markets, and consequently passing up good projects.



Country Costs Of Capital

Bestfoods, with the help of Stern Stewart, decided that rather than arbitrarily jack up its domestic hurdle rates for investments in other markets, the better approach was to calculate specific costs of capital for those markets. One method of doing so is to work from the equity and debt markets of the countries in question. These expected yields on investments, or market-derived discount rates, as Resendes calls them, give companies an idea of the returns investors are demanding in different markets . The rates are calculated by comparing the market values of local companies' equity and debt with the estimated future cash flows from those companies.


This local approach to the CAPM, however, fails to reflect valuable diversification benefits that a multinational company gains by investing in multiple markets. Gluck and Pettit decided to use what they call a hybrid version of the CAPM. They begin by estimating a U.S.- dollar-based risk-free rate of return for each country, using stripped Brady bond or global eurobond yields where available. In contrast to conventional applications of the CAPM, however, they incorporate portions of sovereign and inflation risk into the rate. In the case of Brazil, the modified risk-free rate is 14.5 percent (by taking into account the U.S.- dollar equivalent). Subtracting that from yield on the local currency--the so-called sovereign yield-- gives a sovereign risk premium of 9.35.


Step two of the method is the calculation of country betas, which indicate both the relative volatility of a foreign market to the U.S. market and the correlation between the two. This is where the diversification benefits--or lack thereof--are determined. In Brazil's case, the low level of correlation with the U.S. market makes up for its high volatility, giving it a beta of 0.81.


With the risk-free rates and country betas, Gluck and Pettit then calculate local and global costs of capital for Bestfoods. Using Brazil again: Say Bestfoods's U.S.- dollar-based cost of capital is 8.5 percent. Add to that Brazil's currency risk of 9.34 percent and sovereign risk of 9.35 percent, then subtract a 2.56 percent diversification benefit, and the local currency cost of capital is 24.7 percent, or 15.3 percent in U.S.-dollar terms.



Testing The Waters

As aggressively as Bestfoods pursues growth in new markets, it does not dive in headfirst. It usually partners with other companies to share risk, and looks to gain experience in markets before committing larger amounts of capital. In the early 1990s, for example, Bestfoods started an import operation in Russia, using a small sales force to sell bouillon and soups from Polish and Slovak firms. "We were testing the waters," says Gluck. It wasn't until 1995 that the company bought its first facility in Tula, a city south of Moscow, and began manufacturing product. Although the return on the Tula investment has fallen since the Russian financial crisis of 1998, the company is committed to its business there. "We believe in the first-mover advantage," says Gluck. "When stability returns, we'll be in a favored position."


In fact, Bestfoods's familiarity with foreign markets gives it an advantage over competitors when considering larger investments. In February, the company closed a deal to acquire Brazilian food manufacturer Arisco. With the substantial devaluation in 1999 of the Brazilian real still fresh in competitors' minds, Bestfoods managed to get the company for $752 million, which Wall Street analysts consider a steal. "There's a real advantage to having people on the ground," says Gluck.


Bestfoods's global presence clearly made the company far more attractive to Unilever than U.S.-based firms tied more closely to the domestic market. With cross- border deals on the rise, other companies may be shortchanging shareholders by failing to retool their own foreign hurdle rates.



Andrew Osterland is a senior editor at CFO.

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