What Is Fair Value?

Fair Value Explained

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The fair value of an investment is a representation of what it could be expected to sell for in a fair and competitive market. It’s important to distinguish between fair value and market value because, while they are similar, they are not the same thing.

Learn what fair value is, how it differs from market value, and how to determine fair value in investing.

What Is Fair Value?

An investment’s fair value is a hypothetical price that the investment would sell for in a normal transaction when both the buyer and seller freely agree on that price. This means that neither the buyer nor the seller is compelled to enter the transaction. This broad concept applies to both physical assets and financial securities.

  • Alternative definition: Here, we are talking about the fair value of an investment from the perspective of an individual investor. Fair value is treated differently in a financial reporting context, and is sometimes specifically defined by state law for use in legal matters. 
  • Alternative name: Intrinsic value

How Fair Value Works

Before we jump into the determination of fair value, it’s important to understand that the fair value of an investment is an estimated, or potential, value and requires some assumptions. It is not a precise calculation of the true value of an investment. To the extent that the assumptions you make differ from reality or are different from the estimates someone else makes, then your estimate of fair value will be different.

A basic way to estimate the fair value of an investment is with a discounted cash flow model.   

For stocks, the relevant cash flow is the stock’s dividends, and the most common discounted cash (dividend) flow model is the Gordon Growth Model. 

Determining the  Fair Value of an Investment

To see how it works, let’s look at the following equation using a simple example.

The intrinsic value of an equity is calculated by dividing the value of the next year’s dividend by rate of return minus the growth rate.

P = D1/r – g

(Here,  P = current stock price, D1 = value of next year’s dividend, g = constant growth rate expected, and r = required rate of return.)

Suppose the stock in question is expected to pay a $2 dividend, the discount rate is 8%, and the expected growth rate is 6%. The stock’s fair value is $100.

But what goes into the estimates of future dividends, discount rate, and expected growth rate?

Future dividends can be estimated based on the company's dividend history and considering how the dividends have grown over time. This would give you your expected dividend growth rate (g), and you would also use this information to calculate the next period's dividend (D1).

For example, suppose you look at the last five years of dividends and see that they have grown an average of 6% per year. Provided you reasonably expect that growth rate to continue in the future, you could let g be 6%. You would increase the most recent dividend by 6% and that becomes D1. In our example, let’s say our last dividend was $1.89. Because we expect that to grow by 6% over the year ahead, then our expected dividend in the next period would be $1.89 x 1.06 = $2. 

What about the discount rate? The discount rate can also be thought of as the required rate of return for an investor. 

Simply stated, the discount rate is the rate you would have to expect to earn on an investment to entice you to invest your money in it.

Several factors influence the required rate of return, or hurdle rate, such as the rate of interest you could earn on risk-free government bonds, expected inflation, liquidity, and how risky the investment is.  The more favorable these factors are for the investor, the lower the required rate of return; the less favorable they are, the higher the rate of return an investor would require. For our hypothetical example, we are saying that, based on our assessment of each of those rate-of-return factors, we would have to think we could earn 8% by investing in the stock or we wouldn’t do it. 

Fair Value vs. Market Value

Fair value is an estimate of what an investment could be worth in a competitive and free market. Market value is the current value of the investment as determined by actual market transactions, and can therefore fluctuate more frequently than fair value. Fair value is also calculated based on a chosen estimation model such as a discounted cash flow model that requires the investor to make some assumptions about the model's inputs. Because market value is an observed, actual value, no assumptions are necessary.

Fair Value Market Value
Hypothetical or estimated value Actual value or current price
Calculated with a model Observed in the marketplace
Requires assumptions No assumptions 

What Fair Value Means for Individual Investors

A fair-value estimate gives you a way of determining the longer-term intrinsic value of a particular investment so you can decide if it’s one you want to buy, or sell, if you already own it. 

You use it by comparing the fair value of the investment against the current market price. Again using our example of a stock for which we estimate a fair value of $100, we would obtain a current price quote on that stock. 

If it is below $100, say $92.50, then this method of analysis would suggest that this is a stock we want to buy because its current market price is lower than what we estimate it is worth. On the other hand, if the current market price is above $100, $104.75, for instance, then we would not buy it because it is currently overvalued. 

To illustrate that this is only an estimation and that the assumed values of your inputs have a significant impact on determination of the fair value of a stock, let’s see what happens when you change one of your inputs.

The concept of an investment's fair value is just an estimate that relies on a theoretical model with estimated inputs. It should not be viewed as a precise measure of the investment's actual value.

Suppose you change your mind and decide that the investment is a little riskier than you originally thought. Instead of an 8% required rate of return, you decide that 9% is more appropriate. That means that you only value the stock at $66.67. 

That’s a big difference. Now, even at $92.50, you would reject this investment based on this model. Why? Because you’d have to pay $92.50 for something that you now determine has a fair value of only $66.67. It’s no longer worth the price.

Key Takeaways

  • Fair value is an estimate of the investment’s value in a freely entered transaction under normal conditions.
  • Determining an investment's fair value requires estimations that can vary between investors, and that estimated value is sensitive to the assumptions used.
  • Fair value differs from market value in that market value is the actual observed market value for the investment, not an estimate.
  • Don’t rely too heavily on a fair value estimate when making an investment decision. It’s only an estimate, and it’s sensitive to your choice of inputs. 

Article Sources

  1. AICPA. "Quick Reference Guide, Standards and Premises of Value." Accessed Jan. 7, 2021.

  2. Valuation Masterclass. "What is the Gordon Growth Model?"
    Accessed Jan.7, 2021.

  3. Morningstar. "Stocks 400 - What Is Fair Value?" Accessed Jan. 7, 2021.