Expressed as a percentage, the debt-to-equity ratio shows the proportion of equity and debt a firm is using to finance its assets, and the ability for shareholder equity to fulfill obligations to creditors in the event of a business decline. A low debt-to-equity ratio indicates lower risk, since debt holders have less claim on the company's assets. A higher debt-to-equity ratio, on the other hand, shows that a company has been aggressive in financing its growth with debt, and there may be a greater potential for financial distress if earnings do not exceed the cost of borrowed funds.

To calculate debt-to-equity, divide total liabilities by total shareholders' equity:

Debt-to-equity ratio = total liabilities / total shareholders' equity

For example, the balance sheet for Coca-Cola Co (KO) for the first quarter of 2014 shows (in millions) total liabilities of $58,635 and total shareholders' equity of $32,654. Using the above formula, the debt-to-equity ratio for KO can be calculated as:

Debt-to-equity = $58,635 / $32,654 = 1.8 (or 180%)

This means that KO has $1.80 of debt for every dollar of equity. During the same quarter, PepsiCo Inc (PEP) had a debt-to-equity ratio of 1.4, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc (DPS) had a ratio of 1.21, and the industry average for non-alcoholic beverages was 1.22, a new high for the industry, indicating that the industry (on average) is using more leverage to finance its assets. At 1.8, KO's debt-to-equity ratio is higher than both the industry average and at least two similar companies.

The debt-to-equity ratio can help investors identify companies that are highly leveraged and that may pose a higher risk. Investors can compare a company's debt-to-equity ratio against industry averages and/or other similar companies to gain a general indication of a company's equity-liability relationship. As with other financial ratios, it is more useful to compare various companies within the same industry than to look at only one company, or to attempt to compare companies from different industries. In addition, investors should consider more than one ratio (or number) when making investment decisions since one ratio cannot provide a comprehensive view of the company.

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