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What is a 'Capital Structure'

The capital structure is how a firm finances its overall operations and growth by using different sources of funds. Debt comes in the form of bond issues or long-term notes payable, while equity is classified as common stock, preferred stock or retained earnings. Short-term debt such as working capital requirements is also considered to be part of the capital structure.

BREAKING DOWN 'Capital Structure'

A firm's capital structure can be a mixture of long-term debt, short-term debt, common equity and preferred equity. A company's proportion of short- and long-term debt is considered when analyzing capital structure. When analysts refer to capital structure, they are most likely referring to a firm's debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio, which provides insight into how risky a company is. Usually, a company that is heavily financed by debt has a more aggressive capital structure and therefore poses greater risk to investors. This risk, however, may be the primary source of the firm's growth.

Debt vs. Equity

Debt is one of the two main ways companies can raise capital in the capital markets. Companies like to issue debt because of the tax advantages. Interest payments are tax-deductible. Debt also allows a company or business to retain ownership, unlike equity. Additionally, in times of low interest rates, debt is abundant and easy to access.

Equity is more expensive than debt, especially when interest rates are low. However, unlike debt, equity does not need to be paid back if earnings decline. On the other hand, equity represents a claim on the future earnings of the company as a part owner.

Debt-to-Equity Ratio as a Measure of Capital Structure

Both debt and equity can be found on the balance sheet. The assets listed on the balance sheet are purchased with this debt and equity. Companies that use more debt than equity to finance assets have a high leverage ratio and an aggressive capital structure. A company that pays for assets with more equity than debt has a low leverage ratio and a conservative capital structure. That said, a high leverage ratio and/or an aggressive capital structure can also lead to higher growth rates, whereas a conservative capital structure can lead to lower growth rates. It is the goal of company management to find the optimal mix of debt and equity, also referred to as the optimal capital structure.

Analysts use the D/E ratio to compare capital structure. It is calculated by dividing debt by equity. Savvy companies have learned to incorporate both debt and equity into their corporate strategies. At times, however, companies may rely too heavily on external funding, and debt in particular. Investors can monitor a firm's capital structure by tracking the D/E ratio and comparing it against the company's peers.

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