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Numbers and the narrative

Whenever I approached the close of my financial modelling course, I always did a simple roll-call to call for feedback from everyone in the class. This time, instead of recycling this common practice, I decided to try out a different approach by using Mentimeter and getting everyone to input three keywords on how they felt about the last two days, and this was the result:

A million followers can't be wrong.

One of the key aspects of financial modelling is being able to accurately project cash flows. This has consistently been a perennial question that comes up - "how do we do it?", "How do we know that the numbers are reliable?", and of course the occasional remark from the seasoned industry veteran: "the assumptions are too conservative, I think it should be much higher!"

Subject matter experts and experienced professionals who have been in the game for a long time play an influential role in terms of how we rely on an estimation of the future.

In today's context - given the speed and digital pervasiveness of information - the loudest person in the room can also sometimes be easily misconstrued an industry thought leader.

“Facts can be so misleading, but rumors, true or false, are often revealing." - Colonel Hans Landa [Inglorious Basterds]

Before we had the TV, email and newspaper, people relied on word-of-mouth as their primary source of information. Casual banter amongst households within proximity was how we passed the word around.

There was usually nothing lost in translation and no one usually questioned its legitimacy. That playground of information is so different today.

Part of how we receive information today has evolved to include social media channels, such as Twitter and LinkedIn. We no longer need to hear information directly from the proverbial horse’s mouth. It is incredibly easy to be swayed by the opinions of the majority, albeit online or offline.

After all a thought leader with a million followers can't be wrong right?

“Be wary of self-proclaimed and crowd-proclaimed experts. It’s less likely that experts will be mimetically chosen in the hard sciences (physics, math, chemistry) because people have to show their work. But it’s easy for someone to become an overnight expert on “productivity” merely because they got published in the right place. Scientism fools people because it is a mimetic game dressed up as science." - Luke Burgis

"The key is carefully curating our sources of knowledge so that we are able to get down to what is true regardless of how many other people want to believe it. And that means doing the work.

The process is more important than the end result.

In my opinion, projecting cash flows requires more imagination than hard core quantitative and technical skills.

Valuation and financial modelling is in reality part art, part science. In fact I would even go further to say that a large part of it is art, since the desired outcome is almost always based on creatively imagining what the future beholds.

The narrative, so to speak, is as important as the numbers. As Yuval Harari puts it in his book:

"A person who wishes to influence the decisions of governments, organizations, and companies must learn to speak in numbers. Experts do their best to translate every idea into numbers."

And so, the process of constructing a financial model tries to achieve this.

I often get asked if I could provide excel templates for a variety of sectors that people could use to just work off, punching in the inputs to generate the valuation output. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way.

The real value in any financial modelling exercise is not the result it produces, but the mental exercise that you have to go through in order to produce a functional three-statement spreadsheet of intricately connected moving parts.

This is probably the same parallel why people run marathons - not to get from point A to point B but more so the journey, the process of having gone through first hand and pain of completing 42.195km and that personal feeling of having achieved something at the finish line. That sensation means something different to everyone.

The financial model is then a representation of what you think of the business and possibly how you see it evolving over time. In the hands of another person, the assumptions and results might look very different.

As Warren Buffet once said:

"Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster but they tell you nothing about the future."

Whatever someone wants has value.

Going back to the narrative, the valuation exercise seems to be always all about that magic number and the story behind that number.

It is easy to play around with numbers, crunch the numbers and as a lot of bankers say - massage the numbers. Data is widely available nowadays with the Internet and relatively cheap access to some proprietary information.

Stories on the other hand are a reflection of the founder/CEO’s ambition or the company’s vision of the future.

In the digital world, social media has also increasingly found its role as a facilitator of information (reliable or not), and does an incredibly good job of amplifying stories.

Just look at GME.

This boring brick and mortar retailer was reportedly shuttering stores in 2019 and went into a semi-crisis when revenues plunged in 2020.

Yet, its share price defied everything the numbers were saying, becoming a cultural sensation on social media.

If you looked at Lehman Brothers' balance sheet back in 2008 they actually had "one of the strongest capital and liquidity positions the Firm has ever had". But the story unfortunately went sideways, souring sentiments very quickly, resulting in its shocking collapse, disregarding whatever the snapshot fundamentals and numbers were showing.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are also classic examples of how story-telling has manifested in valuation.

There is almost no means of proving why a digital image of a monkey could be worth thousands of dollars. There is also no real use for a digital monkey, and therefore, no way of doing a meaningful DCF valuation.

NFTs are simply worth what they are because people say so and because people want it.

So, you can’t model sentiment and emotion in a spreadsheet. You also can't do an analysis of the cost-benefits on waging war for national security. Neither can you put a price tag on human relationships. The numbers simply won’t stack up.

"The concept of economic value is easy: whatever someone wants has value, regardless of the reason (if any), and its value is higher the more it is wanted and the less there is of it." - Per Bylund

Storytelling for what it is, is a persuasion exercise to galvanise interest and sell something - an idea, a product, a call to action. But it remains effective only to the extent others believe and identify with it. Any story becomes instantly more believable if there is sufficient information and that the anecdotal evidence provided is relatable by the other party - which explains also why investor targeting strategies are different for retail punters and large institutional buyers.

Without connecting the numbers to a story, projecting cash flows simply becomes an emotionless exercise of numbers.


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