CFOs invariably ask themselves two related questions when managing their balance sheets: should they return excess cash to shareholders or invest it and should they finance new projects by adding debt or drawing on equity? Indeed, achieving the right capital structure the composition of debt and equity that a company uses to finance its operations and strategic investments has long vexed academics and practitioners alike. Some focus on the theoretical tax benefit of debt, since interest expenses are often tax deductible. More recently, executives of public companies have wondered if they, like some private equity firms, should use debt to increase their returns. Meanwhile, many companies are holding substantial amounts of cash and deliberating on what to do with it.
The issue is more nuanced than some pundits suggest. In theory, it may be possible to reduce capital structure to a financial calculation to get the most tax benefits by favoring debt, for example, or to boost earnings per share superficially through share buybacks. The result, however, may not be consistent with a company’s business strategy, particularly if executives add too much debt. In the 1990s, for example, many telecommunications companies financed the acquisition of third-generation (3G) licenses entirely with debt, instead of with equity or some combination of debt and equity, and they found their strategic options constrained when the market fell.
Indeed, the potential harm to a company’s operations and business strategy from a bad capital structure is greater than the potential benefits from tax and financial leverage. Instead of relying on capital structure to create value on its own, companies should try to make it work hand in hand with their business strategy, by striking a balance between the discipline and tax savings that debt can deliver and the greater flexibility of equity. In the end, most industrial companies can create more value by making their operations more efficient than they can with clever financing.
Capital Structure’s Long-term Impact
Capital structure affects a company’s overall value through its impact on operating cash flows and the cost of capital. Since the interest expense on debt is tax deductible in most countries, a company can reduce its after-tax cost of capital by increasing debt relative to equity, thereby directly increasing its intrinsic value. While finance textbooks often show how the tax benefits of debt have a wide-ranging impact on value, they often use too low a discount rate for those benefits. In practice, the impact is much less significant for large investment-grade companies (which have a small relevant range of capital structures). Overall, the value of tax benefits is quite small over the relevant levels of interest coverage (see chart). For a typical investment-grade company, the change in value over the range of interest coverage is less than 5 percent.
The effect of debt on cash flow is less direct but more significant. Carrying some debt increases a company’s intrinsic value because debt imposes discipline; a company must make regular interest and principal payments, so it is less likely to pursue frivolous investments or acquisitions that don’t create value. Having too much debt, however, can reduce a company’s intrinsic value by limiting its flexibility to make value-creating investments of all kinds, including capital expenditures, acquisitions, and, just as important, investments in intangibles such as business building, R&D, and sales and marketing.