Accounting for Risk and Return in Equity Valuation

11 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2011

See all articles by Stephen H. Penman

Stephen H. Penman

Columbia Business School - Department of Accounting

Date Written: Spring 2011


Standard valuation models forecast cash flows or earnings, add a growth rate, and discount the cash flows to their present value with a discount rate that typically reflects the cost of capital. But as the author argues, projecting the long‐term growth rate is essentially speculative; and along with uncertainty about the growth rate, analysts generally do not have a good grasp of the discount rate either. Thus, instead of reducing uncertainty, these two features effectively compound uncertainty in valuations in the sense that slight changes in the growth rate or discount rate can change the valuation considerably. In this article, the author proposes an alternative approach that views the investor's problem as one of challenging the speculations that are built into the current market price, particularly the speculation about growth. Rather than building in a speculative growth rate (and thereby treating it as if it were a certainty), the author's approach turns the problem on its head by using an accounting analysis of the firm's current earnings and cash flows that provides a basis for recognizing the speculative component of the current stock price. More specifically, the author's analysis identifies the future earnings growth path that is implied by the market price, which can then be evaluated with the question: Do I want to pay for this growth? Because growth expectations are risky, additional analysis can be used to provide an understanding of the risk and return to buying growth, and of the upside and downside if risk growth expectations are not realized. By taking such an approach, investors incorporate their understanding of risk not by increasing the discount rate, but by recognizing that the primary risk in investing is the risk of overpaying for growth.

Suggested Citation

Penman, Stephen H., Accounting for Risk and Return in Equity Valuation (Spring 2011). Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp. 50-58, 2011. Available at SSRN: or

Stephen H. Penman (Contact Author)

Columbia Business School - Department of Accounting ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-9151 (Phone)
212-316-9219 (Fax)

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