The primary factors that influence a company’s capital-structure decision are:

1. Business Risk:

Excluding debt, business risk is the basic risk of the company’s operations. The greater the business risk, the lower the optimal debt ratio. As an example, let’s compare a utility company with a retail apparel company. A utility company generally has more stability in earnings. The company has les risk in its business given its stable revenue stream. However, a retail apparel company has the potential for a bit more variability in its earnings. Since the sales of a retail apparel company are driven primarily by trends in the fashion industry, the business risk of a retail apparel company is much higher. Thus, a retail apparel company would have a lower optimal debt ratio so that investors feel comfortable with the company’s ability to meet its responsibilities with the capital structure in both good times and bad.

2. Company’s Tax Exposure

Debt payments are tax deductible. As such, if a company’s tax rate is high, using debt as a means of financing a project is attractive because the tax deductibility of the debt payments protects some income from taxes.

3. Financial Flexibility

This is essentially the firm’s ability to raise capital in bad times. It should come as no surprise that companies typically have no problem raising capital when sales are growing and earnings are strong. However, given a company’s strong cash flow in the good times, raising capital is not as hard. Companies should make an effort to be prudent when raising capital in the good times, not stretching its capabilities too far. The lower a company’s debt level, the more financial flexibility a company has. The airline industry is a good example. In good times, the industry generates significant amounts of sales and thus cash flow. However, in bad times, that situation is reversed and the industry is in a position where it needs to borrow funds. If an airline becomes too debt ridden, it may have a decreased ability to raise debt capital during these bad times because investors may doubt the airline’s ability to service its existing debt when it has new debt loaded on top.

variability in company earnings
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