How Do You Calculate the Debt-to-Equity Ratio?

The debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio shows the proportions of equity and debt a company is using to finance its assets and it signals the extent to which shareholder's equity can fulfill obligations to creditors, in the event a business declines.

A low debt-to-equity ratio indicates a lower amount of financing by debt via lenders, versus funding through equity via shareholders. A higher ratio indicates that the company is getting more of its financing by borrowing money, which subjects the company to potential risk if debt levels are too high.

Simply put: the more a company's operations rely on borrowed money, the greater the risk of bankruptcy, if the business hits hard times. This is because minimum payments on loans must still be paid—even if a company has not profited enough to meet its obligations. For a highly leveraged company, sustained earnings declines could lead to financial distress or bankruptcy.

Key Takeaways

  • The debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio shows the proportion of equity and debt a company is using to finance its assets.
  • The D/E ratio signals the extent to which shareholder's equity can fulfill obligations to creditors, in the event of a business decline.
  • The more a company's operations are funded by borrowed money, the greater the risk of bankruptcy, if the business hits hard times.
  • Debt can also be helpful, in facilitating a company's healthy expansion.
  • Therefore, a low D/E ratio, in and of itself, is not always a good attribute for a growing firm.

The Debt To Equity Ratio

How to Calculate Debt-to-Equity

To calculate debt-to-equity, divide a company's total liabilities by its total amount of shareholders' equity as shown below.

 Debt to Equity Ratio = Total Liabilities Total Shareholders’ Equity \begin{aligned} \text{Debt to Equity Ratio} = \frac { \text{Total Liabilities} }{ \text{Total Shareholders' Equity} } \\ \end{aligned} Debt to Equity Ratio=Total Shareholders’ EquityTotal Liabilities

Total liabilities include both current (short-term) and long-term liabilities. Shareholders' equity is calculated as total assets less total liabilities.

Example of Debt-to-Equity

Let's consider a historical example from Apple, Inc. (AAPL). We can see below that for the fiscal year (FY) ended 2017, Apple had total liabilities of $241 billion (rounded) and total shareholders' equity of $134 billion, according to their 10-K statement.

Using the above formula, the debt-to-equity ratio for AAPL can be calculated as:

Debt-to-equity = $ 241 , 000 , 000 $ 134 , 000 , 000 = 1.80 \begin{aligned} \text{Debt-to-equity} = \frac { \$241,000,000 }{ \$134,000,000 } = 1.80 \\ \end{aligned} Debt-to-equity=$134,000,000$241,000,000=1.80

The result means that Apple had $1.80 of debt for every dollar of equity. But on its own, the ratio doesn't give investors the complete picture. It's important to compare the ratio to other similar companies.

Comparing D/E's for FY 2017 

For example, at the end of FY 2017, General Motors had a debt-to-equity ratio of 5.03—far higher than Apple's. However, the two companies are players in different industries. And given the capital expenditures needed to operate manufacturing plants around the world, it makes sense that GM has a higher ratio since it's likely to have more liabilities. Comparing the ratios to companies within their industries presents a clearer picture of how the companies are performing. 

  • General Motors Company (GM) = 5.03
  • Ford Motor Company (F) = 6.37
  • Apple Inc. (AAPL) = 1.80 
  • Netflix Inc. (NFLX) = 4.29
  •, Inc. (AMZN) = 3.73

We can see above that GM's debt-to-equity ratio of 5.03, compared to Ford's 6.37, is not as high as it was when compared to Apple's 1.80 debt-to-equity ratio. However, when comparing Apple to technology companies like Netflix and Amazon, it becomes apparent that Apple uses far less debt financing than those two companies.

Of course, that's not to say that the debt-to-equity ratios for Amazon and Netflix are too high, however, that number may inspire investors to take a peek at the companies' balance sheets, to determine how they are using their debt to drive earnings. 

D/E ratios must be compared to company peers or competitors, or between the same company at different points of time. A high D/E is not always a sign of trouble and a low D/E is not always a good thing.

What Is a Good Debt to Equity Ratio?

A good D/E ratio will depend on the stage of a company in its growth and what industry it is in. A young company or one in a growth phase would be expected to have a higher D/E than a mature firm in many cases. Or, companies in capital-intensive industries such as airlines or mining would also show more debt. As a rule of thumb for the average company, a D/E ratio below 1.0 might be seen as a relatively healthy value, whereas ratios higher than 2.0 could be viewed as high.

How Do You Calculate Debt-Equity Ratio From a Balance Sheet?

The first step to calculate the D/E is to find the total liabilities entry on the right side of the balance sheet and then put that in the numerator of the ratio. In the denominator, enter the total shareholder equity (also on the right, typically below liabilities). Then divide.

How Do You Calculate Debt-to-Equity Ratio in Excel?

To calculate the D/E ratio in Excel, enter a company's total liabilities and shareholder equity into two adjacent cells and input the formula "=A1/A2" and press enter.

The Bottom Line

The debt-to-equity ratio can help investors identify highly leveraged companies that may pose risks, during rough patches. Investors can compare a company's debt-to-equity ratio against industry averages and other similar companies to gain a general indication of a company's equity-liability relationship. But not all high debt-to-equity ratios signal poor business practices. In fact, debt can catalyze the expansion of a company's operations and ultimately generate additional income for both the business and its shareholders.

Article Sources
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  1. Apple. "Form 10-K for the Fiscal Year Ended Sept. 30, 2017," Page 41.

  2. General Motors Company. "Form 10-K for the Fiscal Year Ended Dec. 31, 2017," Page 46.

  3. Ford Motor Company. "Form 10-K for the Fiscal Year Ended Dec. 31, 2017," Page FS-4.

  4. Netflix. "Form 10-K for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2017," Page 43.

  5. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. " Inc. Form 10-K for the Fiscal Year Ended Dec. 31, 2017," Page 41.