What is an 'Underinvestment Problem'
An underinvestment problem is an agency problem where a company refuses to invest in low-risk assets, in order to maximize their wealth at the cost of the debt holders. Low-risk projects provide more security for the firm's debt holders, since a steady stream of cash can be generated to pay off the lenders. The safe cash flow does not generate an excess return for the shareholders. As a result, the project is rejected, despite increasing the overall value of the company.
BREAKING DOWN 'Underinvestment Problem'
Shareholders under invest capital by refusing to participate in low-risk projects. This is similar to the asset substitution problem, where shareholders exchange low-risk assets for high-risk ones. Both instances will increase shareholder value at the expense of the debt holders. Since high-risk projects have large profits, the shareholders benefit from increased income, as the debt holders require only a fixed portion of cash flow. The problem occurs because the debt holders are not compensated for the additional risk.