What Is Capital Intensive?

The term "capital intensive" refers to business processes or industries that require large amounts of investment to produce a good or service and thus have a high percentage of fixed assets, such as property, plant, and equipment (PP&E). Companies in capital-intensive industries are often marked by high levels of depreciation.

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Capital Intensive

Understanding Capital Intensive

Capital-intensive industries tend to have high levels of operating leverage, which is the ratio of fixed costs to variable costs. As a result, capital-intensive industries need a high volume of production to provide an adequate return on investment. This also means that small changes in sales can lead to big changes in profits and return on invested capital.

Their high operating leverage makes capital-intensive industries much more vulnerable to economic slowdowns compared with labor-intensive businesses because they still have to pay fixed costs, such as overhead on the plants that house the equipment and depreciation on the equipment. These costs must be paid even when the industry is in recession.

Examples of capital-intensive industries include automobile manufacturing, oil production, and refining, steel production, telecommunications, and transportation sectors (e.g., railways and airlines). All these industries require massive amounts of capital expenditures.

Capital intensity refers to the weight of a firm's assets—including plants, property, and equipment—in relation to other factors of production.

Measuring Capital Intensity

Besides operating leverage, the capital intensity of a company can be gauged by calculating how many assets are needed to produce a dollar of sales, which is total assets divided by sales. This is the inverse of the asset turnover ratio, an indicator of the efficiency with which a company is deploying its assets to generate revenue.

Another way to measure a firm's capital intensity is to compare capital expenses to labor expenses. For example, if a company spends $100,000 on capital expenditures and $30,000 on labor, it is most likely capital-intensive. Likewise, if a company spends $300,000 on labor and only $10,000 on capital expenditures, it means the company is more service- or labor-oriented.

Key Takeaways

  • Capital intensity can be measured by comparing capital and labor expenses.
  • Capital-intensive firms usually have high depreciation costs and operating leverage.
  • The capital intensity ratio is total assets divided by sales.

The Impact of Capital Intensity on Earnings

Capital-intensive firms generally use a lot of financial leverage, as they can use plant and equipment as collateral. However, having both high operating leverage and financial leverage is very risky should sales fall unexpectedly.

Because capital-intensive industries have high depreciation costs, analysts that cover capital-intensive industries often add depreciation back to net income using a metric called earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). By using EBITDA, rather than net income, it is easier to compare the performance of companies in the same industry.