Tests for Expansion Option to have Value

Not all investments have options embedded in them, and not all options, even if they do exist, have value. To assess whether an investment creates valuable options that need to be analyzed and valued, we need to understand three key questions.

1. Is the first investment a pre-requisite for the later investment/expansion? If not, how necessary is the first investment for the later investment/expansion? Consider our earlier analysis of the value of a patent or the value of an undeveloped oil reserve as options. A firm cannot generate patents without investing in research or paying another firm for the patents, and it cannot get rights to an undeveloped oil reserve without bidding on it at a government auction or buying it from another oil company. Clearly, the initial investment here (spending on R&D, bidding at the auction) is required for the firm to have the second investment. Now consider the Disney investment in a Spanish channel, without which presumably it is unwilling to expand into the larger Latin American market. Unlike the patent and undeveloped reserves examples, the initial investment is not a pre-requisite for the second, though management might view it as such. The connection gets even weaker, and the option value lower, when we look at one firm acquiring another to have the option to be able to enter a large market. Acquiring an internet service provider to have a foothold in the internet retailing market or buying a Chinese brewery to preserve the option to enter the Chinese beer market would be examples of less valuable options.

2. Does the firm have an exclusive right to the later investment/expansion? If not, does the initial investment provide the firm with significant competitive advantages on subsequent investments? The value of the option ultimately derives not from the cash flows generated by the second and subsequent investments, but from the excess returns generated by these cash flows. The greater the potential for excess returns on the second investment, the greater the value of the expansion option in the first investment. The potential for excess returns is closely tied to how much of a competitive advantage the first investment provides the firm when it takes subsequent investments. At one extreme, again, consider investing in research and development to acquire a patent. The patent gives the firm that owns it the exclusive rights to produce that product, and if the market potential is large, the right to the excess returns from the project. At the other extreme, the firm might get no competitive advantages on subsequent investments, in which case, it is questionable as to whether there can be any excess returns on these investments. In reality, most investments will fall in the continuum between these two extremes, with greater competitive advantages being associated with higher excess returns and larger option values. 3. How sustainable are the competitive advantages? In a competitive market place, excess returns attract competitors, and competition drives out excess returns. The more sustainable the competitive advantages possessed by a firm, the greater will be the value of the options embedded in the initial investment. The sustainability of competitive advantages is a function of two forces. The first is the nature of the competition; other things remaining equal, competitive advantages fade much more quickly in sectors where there are aggressive competitors. The second is the nature of the competitive advantage. If the resource controlled by the firm is finite and scarce (as is the case with natural resource reserves and vacant land), the competitive advantage is likely to be sustainable for longer periods. Alternatively, if the competitive advantage comes from being the first mover in a market or from having technological expertise, it will come under assault far sooner. The most direct way of reflecting this competitive advantage in the value of the option is its life; the life of the option can be set to the period of competitive advantage and only the excess returns earned over this period counts towards the value of the option. If the answer is yes to all three questions, then the option to expand can be valuable.

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