Capital Investment: Types, Example, and How It Works

What Is Capital Investment?

Capital investment is the acquisition of physical assets by a company for use in furthering its long-term business goals and objectives. Real estate, manufacturing plants, and machinery are among the assets that are purchased as capital investments.

The capital used may come from a wide range of sources from traditional bank loans to venture capital deals.

Key Takeaways

  • Capital investment is the expenditure of money to fund a company's long-term growth.
  • The term often refers to a company's acquisition of permanent fixed assets such as real estate and equipment.
  • Capital assets are reported as non-current assets and most are depreciated.
  • The funds for capital investment can come from a number of sources, including cash on hand, though big projects are most often financed through obtaining loans or issuing stock.
  • Examples of capital investments are land, buildings, machinery, equipment, or software.

Capital Investment

How Capital Investment Works

Capital investment is a broad term that can be defined in two distinct ways:

  • An individual, a venture capital group or a financial institution may make a capital investment in a business. The money can be provided as a loan or a share of the profits down the road. In this sense of the word, capital means cash.
  • The executives of a company may make a capital investment in the business. They buy long-term assets such as equipment that will help the company run more efficiently or grow faster. In this sense, capital means physical assets.

In either case, the money for capital investment must come from somewhere. A new company might seek capital investment from any number of sources, including venture capital firms, angel investors, or traditional financial institutions. When a new company goes public, it is acquiring capital investment on a large scale from many investors.

An established company might make a capital investment using its own cash reserves or seek a loan from a bank. It might issue bonds or stock shares in order to finance capital investment. There is no minimum or maximum capital investment. It can range from less than $100,000 in seed financing for a start-up to hundreds of millions of dollars for massive projects undertaken by companies in capital-intensive sectors such as mining, utilities, and infrastructure.

Capital investment is meant to benefit a company in the long run, but it nonetheless can have short-term downsides.

Capital Investments for Business

A decision by a business to make a capital investment is a long-term growth strategy. A company plans and implements capital investments in order to ensure future growth. Capital investments generally are made to increase operational capacity, capture a larger share of the market, and generate more revenue. The company may make a capital investment in the form of an equity stake in another company's complementary operations for the same purposes.

In many cases, capital investments are a necessary and normal part of an industry. Consider an oil-drilling company that relies on heavy machinery to extract raw materials to be processed. As opposed to a law firm that will have low-to-no capital investment requirements, capital-intensive businesses usually need specific assets in order to operate.

In addition, there are strategic components for a business to consider when deciding whether or not to invest in a capital asset. For instance, consider how certain heavy machinery such as a company vehicle could be leased. Should the company be willing to incur debt and tie up capital, the company may spend less money in the long-term by incurring a capital investment as opposed to a periodic "rental" expense.

Types of Capital Investments

Companies often acquire capital investments for diversification, modernization, or business expansion. This may mean buying capital investments different from existing aspects of its business or capital investments that simply do things better than before. Some specific types of capital investments include:

  • Land: Companies may buy bare land to be used for development or expansion.
  • Buildings: Companies may buy existing buildings for manufacturing, storage, production, or headquarter operations.
  • Assets Under Development: Companies may incur spending over time to assemble assets that may be capitalized. For example, a company can build its own building; the accumulation of charges may be considered a capital investment.
  • Furniture and Fixtures: Though furniture and fixtures may be more temporary in nature, certain aspects of accounting rules result in some overlap between FFE and capital investments.
  • Machines: Companies that invest in the production elements of making goods are making capital investments.
  • Software Development or Computing Devices: Companies more frequently invest capital to build software; these costs now commonly qualify for capitalization and amortization over time.

Because land does not deteriorate in a similar manner compared to other capital investments, it is not depreciated.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Capital Investments

Pros of Capital Investments

The advantages of capital investments can vary depending on the specific situation. However, most companies embark on capital investments for productivity.  By investing in new equipment or technology, companies can improve their efficiency, thus lower costs and increasing output. These types of investments may also improve the quality of goods produced.

Capital investments can also lead to cost savings over time. For example, a new piece of equipment may be more energy-efficient than an older model, which can result in lower utility bills. Similarly, new technology may streamline processes and reduce the need for manual labor. Last, companies may decide the long-term discounted cashflow is favorable when comparing the upfront investment of a capital investment compared to the long-term, ongoing cash outlay of a recurring expense.

By investing in their long-term assets, companies can also gain a competitive advantage in the market. This can make it more difficult for competitors to catch up, and can help the company to maintain its market position over the long term. If a company is willing to take a risk and incur a large investment to strengthen its business, this may create a barrier to entry that competitor can not overcome or compete against.

Cons of Capital Investment

The preferred option for capital investment is always a company's own operating cash flow, but that may not be sufficient to cover the anticipated costs. It is more likely the company will resort to outside financing. Therefore, there is usually a little more risk to capital investments. This is especially true for capital investments that are customized or hard to liquidate; once the company has bought the capital investment, it may be hard to exit the investment.

Capital investment is meant to benefit a company in the long run, but it nonetheless can have short-term downsides. Capital investments tends to reduce earnings growth in the short term, and that never pleases stockholders of a public company. This may be especially true for capital investments that also incur operating costs (i.e. the acquisition of land will be accompanied by a potentially hefty annual property tax assessment).

In addition, if a company does not have sufficient capital on hand to make a large investment, there are downsides to each of its financing options. Issuing additional stock shares, which is often the funding option for public companies, dilutes the value of its outstanding shares. Existing shareholders generally dislike finding that their stake in the company has been reduced. Alternatively, the total amount of debt a company has on the books is closely watched by stockholders and analysts. The payments on that debt can stifle the company's further growth.

  • May increase productivity if capital investment is more efficient than prior methods

  • May result in higher quality manufactured goods

  • May be cheaper in the long-run when compared against rented or monthly expensed solutions

  • May create a barrier to entry that yields a competitive advantage

  • May be too expensive for the company to outright purchase on their own.

  • May limit or restrict short-term profitability of the company

  • May be accompanied by additional operating expenses

  • May reduce the liquidity of the company should it be difficult to sell the capital asset

Accounting for Capital Investments

Accounting practices for capital investments involve recording the cost of the asset, allocating the cost over its useful life, and carrying the investment as the difference between cost and accumulated depreciation. The accounting treatment can vary depending on the type of asset, as land is not depreciated but many other capital investments are depreciated.

The cost of the asset should be recorded in the company's accounting records. This can include the purchase price of the asset as well as any additional costs related to the purchase such as installation or transportation costs. Companies may record the fair market value for certain capital investments under certain circumstances, but capital investments must initially be recorded at cost.

If the asset has a cost that meets the company's capitalization policy, the cost of the asset will be recorded as a capital asset on the balance sheet. This allows the company to spread the cost of the asset over its useful life and to recognize the expense over time. This is the primary difference between the assets mentioned earlier and normal operating costs, as operating costs are expensed in the period they are incurred while capital investment costs are spread over time.

The useful life of a capital investment is an estimate of the number of years that the asset will be used by the company. The depreciation method used will depend on the asset and the company's accounting policies, but commonly used methods include straight-line, declining balance, and sum-of-the-years'-digits. Companies may also record impairments to reduce the value of a capital investment should a loss be incurred. In addition, whereas operating expenses may simply be stopped, companies have a series of entries to post when a capital investment is disposed of.

Example of Capital Investment

As part of its year-end financial statements, reported the following assets it owned for fiscal year 2021 and 2022.

Amazon, Balance Sheet
Amazon, Balance Sheet.

This format of the balance sheet is standard where assets are reported by liquidity starting with the most liquid assets. Because capital investments are not liquid, they are often reported lower in the list.

At year-end 2022, Amazon reported a net asset balance of $186.7 billion for property and equipment. This figure is net because capital investments, aside from land, are often depreciated and reported as their cost less any accumulated depreciation. Note that this $186.7 billion is also being excluded from current assets. Because of the long-term nature of capital investments, they are reported as noncurrent assets.

What Is an Example of a Capital Investment?

When a company buys land, that is often a capital investment. Because of the long-term nature of buying land and the illiquidity of the asset, a company usually needs to raise a lot of capital to buy the asset.

How Does a Capital Investment Work?

A capital investment works based on the benefits a company may receive over a long period of time compared to the short-term investment. In theory, a company will pay a large sum of money upfront (or over time). Then, the company will receive a benefit from the asset (potentially even after it has finished paying for it). The idea is a capital investment should provide better long-term value compared to a good or service that is being purchased and used in a single accounting period.

What Is the Largest Downside to a Capital Investment?

Companies must often make a long-term financial or legal commitment when buying capital investments. This means tying up cash, getting rid of flexibility, and taking a risk that may not pan out. Whereas a company can be more nimble by paying for something smaller, a company aims to leverage a single investment to scale growth or innovate. That growth or innovation may not materialize.

The Bottom Line

Companies may decide to make capital investments as a way to innovate, modernize, and capture a competitive advantage over its competitors. This investment often requires a large sum of money, and the company often receives an illiquid asset such as land, buildings, machinery, or equipment. The accounting treatment for capital investments if often different than operating outlays as capital investments are usually depreciated.

Article Sources
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  1. Amazon. "Form 10-K (2022)."

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