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Forest Finance Tools: Be Cautious When Using Cash-on-Cash Returns to Evaluate Timberland Investments

August 28, 2017

Forest finance tools help us manage forest resources as investments. Analysts use finance to compare projects and identify those that satisfy the criteria of clients or managers. Timberland investors naturally care about cash flows and distributions from timberlands over time. These cash flows vary with the products grown, markets served and age distribution of the forest owned. Also, timberland portfolios can be constructed to meet a range of cash flow objectives. That said, the use of cash-on-cash return as a performance metric for timberland investments has narrow applications, if any.

What is Cash-on-Cash Return?

Cash-on-cash return (COCR) is a measure – a percentage – often used by investors for income-producing real estate. It is calculated by dividing before-tax cash flow by the amount of cash invested (down payment). If, for example, before-tax cash flow for an investment property is $15,000 and our invested cash is $100,000, then cash on cash return is 15% ($15K/$100K).

The “annual dollar income” is the cash flow the property expects to generate during the first year of operation. The “total dollar investment” is the total cash invested to acquire the property including down payment, loan points, title fees, appraisals and inspection costs.

Why is COCR Problematic for Timberland Investments?

Most reported returns from timberland investments reflect unrealized gains. Timberland indices and appraisals have limitations, complicating efforts to check the status of active timber investments. This spotlights ways to use hard measures – like cash – to assess performance. As such, investors new to the timberland asset class often ask about the use of cash-on-cash returns for timberlands, and seek to apply it as a point of comparison.

However, COCR does not account for the time value of money. Cash-on-cash return must be restricted to simply measuring a residential income property’s first year cash flow and not its future year’s cash flows. Why? The first year’s COCR estimate will be the most accurate; each successive year becomes increasingly speculative.

Also, COCR does not account for appreciation. Lower COCR today may lead to a greater opportunity for appreciation than acquiring a property with steady COCR and little or no appreciation. For timberlands in particular, a meaningful analysis should account for the fact that timber growth rates differ by age, investment objectives differ by timber portfolio, and values vary as forests grow and move through higher product classes in changing markets over time.

For example, buying and owning a juvenile 8-year old forest for ten years may generate minimal cash flows while appreciating in value through biological and product growth. Alternately, buying and owning a mature 30-year old plantation may generate tremendous cash flows in the first year while appreciating less over the same period. While the juvenile forest may have a low COCR, it may in fact prove a superior value creating investment when evaluated using discounted cash flow (DCF) measures such as net present value (NPV) and internal rate of return (IRR).

While COCR provides one way for real estate investors to quickly compare the profitability of different income-producing properties or investments, it has limits for measuring returns or wealth creation over time. This makes cash-on-cash returns a problematic performance metric for timberland investments.

Read more: Timberland Investing From the Ground Up

This guest post is courtesy of Brooks Mendell, Ph.D., President and CEO at Forisk Consulting, a Georgia-based firm that specializes in forest-industry, timber-REIT, bioenergy, and timber-market research. For more information, visit

About the Author
Dr. Brooks Mendell is President and CEO at Forisk, where he leads the firm’s research program. Founded by Dr. Mendell in 2004, Forisk publishes the Forisk Research Quarterly, which provides market analysis, operations research and timber forecasts to senior management and investors in North America’s forest products industry and timberland investing sectors. Dr. Mendell is an internationally recognized business advisor, researcher, and speaker in the fields of forest business, timberland investing, wood bioenergy and business communications. He has broad domestic and international experience supporting small businesses, Fortune 500 corporations and public organizations. His industry experience includes roles in harvest operations, wood procurement, management consulting, and academia. A Fulbright Scholar, his forestry-related books include “Loving Trees is Not Enough,” “Forest Finance Simplified,” and “Aunt Fanny Learns Forestry: Managing Timberland as an Investment." Dr. Mendell earned BS and MS degrees at M.I.T., an MBA at the University of California at Berkeley, and a PhD in Forest Finance at UGA.