For stock investors that favor companies with good fundamentals, a strong balance sheet is an important consideration for investing in a company's stock. The strength of a company' balance sheet can be evaluated by three broad categories of investment-quality measurements: working capital adequacy, asset performance and capital structure. In this section, we'll consider the importance of capital structure.
A company's capitalization (not to be confused with market capitalization) describes its composition of permanent or long-term capital, which consists of a combination of debt and equity. A company's reasonable, proportional use of debt and equity to support its assets is a key indicator of balance sheet strength. A healthy capital structure that reflects a low level of debt and a corresponding high level of equity is a very positive sign of financial fitness. (Learn about market capitalization in Market Capitalization Defined.)
Clarifying Capital Structure-Related Terminology
The equity part of the debt-equity relationship is the easiest to define. In a company's capital structure, equity consists of a company's common and preferred stock plus retained earnings, which are summed up in the shareholders' equity account on a balance sheet. This invested capital and debt, generally of the long-term variety, comprises a company's capitalization and acts as a permanent type of funding to support a company's growth and related assets.
A discussion of debt is less straightforward. Investment literature often equates a company's debt with its liabilities. Investors should understand that there is a difference between operational and debt liabilities - it is the latter that forms the debt component of a company's capitalization. That's not the end of the debt story, however.
Among financial analysts and investment research services, there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes a debt liability. For many analysts, the debt component in a company's capitalization is simply a balance sheet's long-term debt. However, this definition is too simplistic. Investors should stick to a stricter interpretation of debt where the debt component of a company's capitalization should consist of the following: short-term borrowings (notes payable), the current portion of long-term debt, long-term debt, and two-thirds (rule of thumb) of the principal amount of operating leases and redeemable preferred stock. Using a comprehensive total debt figure is a prudent analytical tool for stock investors.
Capital Ratios and Indicators
In general, analysts use three different ratios to assess the financial strength of a company's capitalization structure. The first two, the debt and debt/equity ratios, are popular measurements; however, it's the capitalization ratio that delivers the key insights to evaluating a company's capital position.
The debt ratio compares total liabilities to total assets. Obviously, more of the former means less equity and, therefore, indicates a more leveraged position. The problem with this measurement is that it is too broad in scope, which, as a consequence, gives equal weight to operational and debt liabilities. The same criticism can be applied to the debt/equity ratio, which compares total liabilities to total shareholders' equity. Current and non-current operational liabilities, particularly the latter, represent obligations that will be with the company forever. Also, unlike debt, there are no fixed payments of principal or interest attached to operational liabilities.
The capitalization ratio (total debt/total capitalization) compares the debt component of a company's capital structure (the sum of obligations categorized as debt plus the total shareholders' equity) to the equity component. Expressed as a percentage, a low number is indicative of a healthy equity cushion, which is always more desirable than a high percentage of debt. (To continue reading about ratios, see Debt Reckoning.)
Additional Evaluative Debt-Equity Considerations
Funded debt is the technical term applied to the portion of a company's long-term debt that is made up of bonds and other similar long-term, fixed-maturity types of borrowings. No matter how problematic a company's financial condition may be, the holders of these obligations cannot demand immediate and full repayment as long the company pays the interest on its funded debt. In contrast, bank debt is usually subject to acceleration clauses and/or covenants that allow the lender to call its loan. From the investor's perspective, the greater the percentage of funded debt to total debt, the better. Funded debt gives a company more wiggle room.
Factors That Influence a Company's Capital-Structure Decision
The primary factors that influence a company's capital-structure decision are as follows:
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 less 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 [E1] 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
Financial flexibility 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 and avoid stretching their capabilities too far. The lower a company's debt level, the more financial flexibility a company has.
Let's take the airline industry as an 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. (Learn more about this industry in Dead Airlines And What Killed Them and 4 Reasons Why Airlines Are Always Struggling.)
4. Management Style
Management styles range from aggressive to conservative. The more conservative a management's approach is, the less inclined it is to use debt to increase profits. An aggressive management may try to grow the firm quickly, using significant amounts of debt to ramp up the growth of the company's earnings per share (EPS).
5. Growth Rate
Firms that are in the growth stage of their cycle typically finance that growth through debt by borrowing money to grow faster. The conflict that arises with this method is that the revenues of growth firms are typically unstable and unproven. As such, a high debt load is usually not appropriate.
More stable and mature firms typically need less debt to finance growth as their revenues are stable and proven. These firms also generate cash flow, which can be used to finance projects when they arise.
6. Market Conditions
Market conditions can have a significant impact on a company's capital-structure condition. Suppose a firm needs to borrow funds for a new plant. If the market is struggling, meaning that investors are limiting companies' access to capital because of market concerns, the interest rate to borrow may be higher than a company would want to pay. In that situation, it may be prudent for a company to wait until market conditions return to a more normal state before the company tries to access funds for the plant. (Read more about market conditions in The Cost Of Unemployment To The Economy and Betting On The Economy: What Are The Odds?)
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