Saturday, January 30, 2016

Corporate Finance 101: A Big Picture, Applied Class!

In my last seven posts, I played my version of Moneyball with company data from the end of 2015, looking at how companies invest their shareholders' money, how much they borrow and the determinants of how much cash they return to stockholders. That structure is the one that underlies the corporate finance class that I have taught every year since 1984, the first two years at UC Berkeley, and the last 30 years at the Stern School of Business. Each semester, for the last few years, I have also invited you, even if you are not a Stern MBA student, to follow the class online, if you so desire, in all its gory details. If you are considering this options, I thought it would make sense to take you on a mini-tour of corporate finance, as a discipline, and how I aim to tackle it in this class.

Corporate Finance: The Big Picture
There are many versions of corporate finance that are taught in class rooms. There is the accounting version of corporate finance, that uses the historical, rule-bound construct of accounting as the basis for corporate finance. Decision making is driven by accounting ratios and financial statements, rather than first principles. There is the banking version of corporate finance, where the class is structured around what bankers do for firms, with the bulk of the class being spent on areas where firms interact with financial markets (M&A, financing choices) and the focus is less on what's right for the firms, and more on how the deal making works. My version of corporate finance is built around the first principles of running a business and it covers every aspect of business from production to marketing to even strategy. In case you are skeptical about the big picture version of this class, here is what it looks like:
All of corporate finance boils down to three broad decisions, the investment decision, which looks at where you should invest your resources, the financing decision, where you decide the right mix and type of debt to use in funding your business and the dividend decision, where you determine how much to hold back in the business (as cash or for reinvestment) and how much to return to the owners of the business.

Applied, not Theory
I find theory for the sake of theory to be arid, and I build my classes around a very simple proposition: if it cannot be applied, I don't talk about it. That application focus may put you off, but my class is essentially the equivalent of a corporate finance lab, where when I introduce a model or a hypothesis,  I get to try it out on real companies in real time. I use six companies through the entire class to illustrate both the theory and how its application can vary across companies:

Thus everything I do in the class, from estimating hurdle rates to determining finance mix to assessing dividend policy, I try on Disney (a large, US, entertainment firm), Vale (a global mining company, based in Brazil, with a government interest in it), Tata Motors (an India-based auto company, part of a family group), Baidu (a Chinese search engine company, traded as a shell company on the NASDAQ), Deutsche Bank (a messy, money center bank, with regulatory constraints) and a small privately owned bookstore in New York City (owned by a third-generation owner).

The Class Structure
The class starts on February 1, with a session from 10.30 to 11.50, and continues through May 9, with sessions every Monday and Wednesday, with a break week starting March 14. The lectures are supplemented with slides and my book on applied corporate finance, with the latter being completely optional, since you can live without it.  The calendar for the class is at this link.

There will be three 30-minute quizzes in the class, each worth 10%, spread out almost evenly across the first 22 sessions, and each quiz will be non-cumulative, covering only the 6-7 sessions prior. In keeping with my view that this is not about memorizing equations and formulas, the quizzes will be open books and open notes. There is a two-hour final exam, which is cumulative and will be after the final session  in May that will account for 30% of the grade.

There will be two projects, with the first being an investment case (that I have not written yet) that will make you decide on whether to make a big investment or not (Apple in the electric car market, Google buying Twitter etc.) and the second being a semester-long exercise of trying every aspect of corporate finance on a company of your choice.

The Online Version
If you are in my class, there is little more to be said, since I will see you in class on Monday. If you are not, you can still partake in almost all of the class. The lectures will not be carried live, but will be recorded and the webcasts should be up by late in the day, Mondays and Wednesdays, through the entire semester. You can find those webcasts in one of three forums:
  1. My website: The links to the webcasts, as well as links to my other material (lecture notes, handouts, even emails to the class) can be found at this link
  2. iTunes U: If you prefer a more polished format, I will also be putting the class online on iTunes U, the app that you can download from the Apple store for any Apple device. The link to the class is here and if already have Apple iTunes U installed on your device, you can add this class with the enroll code of EPF-JFH-SHE. 
  3. YouTube Playlist: I will also be putting the classes up on a playlist on my YouTube account. With each session that I put up, I will also add links to the lecture notes used in the session and additional exercise. 
Not only can you watch the lectures and review the notes, you can also try your hand at the quizzes and final exam, when they are given. I will post the exams, after the class has taken them, online and  I will post the solution, with the grading template that I used in class. You will be your own grader and may be tempted to go easy on yourself, but that's your choice. You can even do the case and the project, but I will unfortunately not have the resources to review or grade either. The good news is that none of this should dent your pocket book, but the bad news is that you will not get class credit or a certificate.

Alternative Routes
Each semester, I know that quite a few people start with my classes, but life very quickly gets in the way. One of the problems of online classes is that without the discipline of having to get to a physical class or concern about credit/grades, it is difficult to persevere to the end. I entirely understand this problem and if, after trying one or two classes or even a few, you decide that your life is too full for more stuff to be added on. I do have a few suggestions, if you still feel that you will gain from the class:
  1. Stretch it out: The class will stay online on all three forums for at least a year or two. Thus, you can stretch out the class to match your time schedule, instead of taking it in calendar time. I had at least three or four people completing the Spring 2012 class, last year.
  2. Online Corporate Finance class: If you find the 80-minute class sessions that make up this class unendurable, I do have a compressed version of the class, where I take each session and do it in 10-15 minutes, instead of 80 minutes. In a testimonial to how much we bulk up college classes, it was not that tough to do and you can find it on my website at this link, on iTunes U at this one or on YouTube at this one.
  3. Executive Corporate Finance class: I just completed a three-day corporate finance class for executive MBAs that is only a mildly compressed version of my regular class and you can find the links to the webcasts for that class on my website.
The End Game
I know that some of you may wonder what the catch is and where I plan to hit you up for fees. While you search for my hidden agenda, I have only one request of you. If you find any of the material in these classes to be useful to you, rather than thank me for it, please pass the favor on, by helping someone else learn, understand or do something. Not only will you get far more out of this simple act of kindness than the person that you offer it to, but I hope that you will also get a sense of why teaching is its own reward.

YouTube Intro to Class

Class links (Spring 2016 MBA class)
  1. My website
  2. iTunes U
  3. YouTube Playlist
Lecture Notes for Class
  1. Syllabus and Project
  2. Lecture Note Packet 1
  3. Lecture Note Packet 2
 Book if you want it
  1. Applied Corporate Finance, 4th Edition (Warning: It is obscenely over priced but there is not much that I can do about it. Sorry!)

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