How Do Bankruptcy Costs Affect a Company's Capital Structure?

Taking on more debt increases a company's risk of bankruptcy

When companies can't pay their debts, they may have very limited options for their future. One of those options may be bankruptcy, the legal term used to describe the process of freeing a company of its debts and other obligations, while giving creditors an opportunity for repayment. While it is a last resort, bankruptcy can give companies a fresh start.

Bankruptcy usually happens when a company has far more debt than it does equity. While debt in a company's capital structure may be a good way to finance its operations, it does come with risks.

Read on to find out more about capital cost structures and how they're affected by bankruptcy costs.

Key Takeaways

  • Companies use debt and equity achieve an optimal capital structure to finance their operations.
  • Financing with debt can decrease a company's tax liabilities, but taking on too much debt can increase the level of risk to shareholders, as well as the risk of bankruptcy.
  • Bankruptcy costs, which include legal fees, can erode a company's overall capital structure.

The Modigliani-Miller Theory

The Modigliani-Miller theory is used in financial and economic studies to analyze the values of different companies. According to the theory, a company's value is based on its ability to generate revenue as well as the risk of its underlying assets and is independent of how it distributes profits and how its operations are financed.

According to the theory, companies that use debt financing are more valuable than those that finance themselves purely with equity. That's because there are tax advantages to using debt to manage their operations. These companies are able to deduct the interest on their debt, lower their tax liability, and make themselves more profitable than those that rely solely on equity.

Capital Structures

Companies can use a variety of different methods to finance their operations to achieve an optimal capital structure. The best way to do this is to have a good mix of debt and equity, which includes a combination of preferred and common stock. This combination helps maximize a firm's value in the market while cutting down its cost of capital.

As noted above, companies can use debt financing to their advantage. But as they decide to take on more debt, their weighted average cost of capital (WACC)—the average cost, after taxes, companies have from capital sources to finance themselves—increases. Taking on more and more debt isn't always such a great idea, as servicing the debt may eat away at investors' return on investment (ROI). That's because higher interest payments decrease earnings and cash flow, and the risk of default increases as well.

The company can achieve an optimal capital structure when there is a balance between the tax benefits and cost of both debt financing and equity financing. Traditionally, debt financing is cheaper and has tax benefits through pretax interest payments, but it is also riskier than equity financing and shouldn't be used exclusively.

A company never wants to lever its capital structure beyond this optimal level so that its WACC is high, its interest payments are high and its risk of bankruptcy is high.

Servicing debt may eat away at shareholders' expected return on investment.

Bankruptcy Costs

Higher costs of capital and an elevated degree of risk may, in turn, increase the risk of bankruptcy. As the company adds more debt to its capital structure, the company's WACC increases beyond the optimal level, further increasing bankruptcy costs. Put simply, bankruptcy costs arise when there is a greater likelihood a company will default on its financial obligations because it has decided to increase its debt financing rather than use equity.

In order to avoid financial devastation, companies should take into account the cost of bankruptcy when determining how much debt to take on, or even whether they should add to their debt levels at all. The cost of bankruptcy can be calculated by multiplying the probability of bankruptcy by its expected overall cost.

Bankruptcy costs vary depending on the structure and size of the company. They generally include filing fees, legal and accounting fees, the loss of human capital, and losses from selling distressed assets.