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THE INTERNAL RATE OF RETURN
Study guide references E3(g), (h) and (i) refer explicitly to the Internal Rate of Return (IRR). Not only do
candidates need to be able to perform the calculation, they need to be able to explain the concept of IRR,
how the IRR can be used for project appraisal, and to consider the merits and problems of this method of
investment appraisal. In short, IRR can be examined in both a written or calculation format, within either
section A or section B of the exam.
When this topic is examined, candidates have historically not performed very well, showing a lack of
understanding of how the calculation works and what the IRR is.
WHAT IS THE IRR?
The IRR can be defined as the discount rate which, when applied to the cash flows of a project, produces
a net present value (NPV) of nil. This discount rate can then be thought of as the forecast return for the
project. If the IRR is greater than a preset percentage target, the project is accepted. If the IRR is less
than the target, the project is rejected.
Considering the definition leads us to the calculation. The IRR uses cash flows (not profits) and more
specifically, relevant cash flows for a project. To perform the calculation, we need to take the cash flows of
a project and calculate the discount factor that would produce a NPV of zero.
If the cash flows of a normal (cash outflow followed by a series of cash inflows) project are taken and
discounted at different discount rates, it will be possible to plot the following graph:
The discount rates used are on the x-axis, and the NPV ($) is on the y-axis. As you can see, the graph is
a smooth curve, which crosses the x-axis. It is this point that we need to calculate the discount rate, which
has produced a NPV of zero this is the IRR.
CALCULATION
It would be very time consuming to calculate the NPV of a project for many different discount factors and
then plot the graph and estimate where the graph crosses the x-axis. Instead, there is a short cut using
the formula:
In order to use the formula then, we need to take the cash flows of the project and discount them twice
once using a discount rate a%, and once using a discount rate b%. If we plot these results on a graph it
would be as follows:
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We know that the line joining these two points should be a curve, but the formula approximates the curve
with a straight line and so calculates the point at which a straight line crosses the x-axis and is therefore
the IRR:
The estimation is most accurate if one NPV used in the formula is positive and the other one is negative.
So if a candidate chooses a discount factor and calculates the NPV of the project which turns out to be
negative, a lower discount rate should be chosen for the next discounting so that there is a possibility of
obtaining a positive NPV. However, within an exam situation, if a candidate ends up with two positive or
two negative NPVs, do not waste time calculating a third. Put the values you have into the formula and
complete the calculation; no marks will be lost.
Let us put some figures in. A project has an immediate cash outflow of $7,000, and then cash inflows of
$4,000 in years 1 and 2.
If we take the cash flows and discount them at 5% and 20%, the following results are gained. Note that in
an exam situation a candidate could choose any discount rate to start with. In choosing the second
discount rate, though, remember what was said above about trying to gain one positive and one negative
NPV.
If these results are substituted into the formula:

Thus, the IRR is estimated to be 9.9%. This is the return that is forecast for the project. If the target return
was 6%, then the project would be accepted; if the target return was 15%, then the project would be
rejected.
As the cash inflows for the project are an annuity, there is actually a short cut that we can take for the
calculation.
Let's set up the cash flows as an annuity:
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For the discount factor (r%) to be the IRR, the NPV must be equal to zero. The table must look as follows:
Looking at the present value column, we can see that (7,000) + 4,000x AF1-2@r% = 0
Rearranging this gives 7,000/4,000 = AF1-2@r%
ie 1.75 = AF1-2@r%
Looking in the annuity tables, the rate with a two-year annuity closest to 1.75 is 9%.
While this answer is slightly different form the first answer gained, this is because we are always
estimating the IRR, and different estimation methods will give slightly different answers. Either method
would gain full marks in an exam context.
WRITTEN ASPECTS
Candidates need to be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of the IRR method of project
appraisal.
Advantages
Disadvantages

If the decision was made purely on IRR, both projects would be ranked the same, and no decision could
be made. However, looking at the size of the projects, Project 1 is larger and will generate greater cash
flow and therefore profits for the organisation.

If only IRR 1 was calculated, then the project would be rejected as the target is higher, but if IRR 2 was
calculated, the project would be accepted. So when a project has two IRRs, there is ambiguity as to
whether the project should be accepted or not.
The method takes account of the time value of money, whereas approaches such as payback do not.
The method uses cash flows, which are real, rather than profits, which can be affected/manipulated by different
accounting policies.
The method gives a result that is easy for management to understand and interpret a percentage to be compared
to a target.
The method assumes that the net cash inflows generated through the project life will be reinvested to earn the same
return as the IRR, but this may not be possible in real life.
The method ignores the relative size of the investments. Consider the following projects, both of which have an IRR
of 8%:
When looking at the graphs earlier, it was stated that we were considering a normal project. If the project has non-
conventional cash flows for example, cash outflow, inflow and then outflow it may be possible to calculate two
IRRs. This can be shown graphically:
Problems arise if an organisation is trying to decide between mutually exclusive projects. This is when an
organisation has two or more projects to choose between, and they can only undertake one. Let's say that we have
Project A and Project B. The cash flows for these projects have been discounted at various discount rates and the
following graph drawn:
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Last updated: 24 Jul 2013

On an IRR basis, Project B should be chosen as the IRR is higher. But what if the organisation actually
had a cost of capital of x%? We can see that Project A actually has the higher NPV at this point, and
therefore Project A would increase the wealth of the shareholders by a greater amount, and should be
chosen. So, with mutually exclusive projects, the IRR method can result in the wrong decision being
made.
CONCLUSION
Candidates need to have a thorough grasp of the concept, the calculations and the advantages and
disadvantages of the Internal Rate of Return. It is hoped that this article will help with these elements.
Written by a member of the Paper FFM examining team
The method is easily confused with the Accounting Rate of Return (ARR) method of investment appraisal. In
previous sittings, candidates have performed an ARR calculation rather than an IRR.