What Is Capital Structure?

The capital structure is the particular combination of debt and equity used by a company to finance its overall operations and growth. Debt comes in the form of bond issues or loans, while equity may come in the form of common stock, preferred stock, or retained earnings. Short-term debt such as working capital requirements is also considered to be part of the capital structure.

Key Takeaways

  • Capital structure is how a company funds its overall operations and growth.
  • Debt consists of borrowed money that is due back to the lender, commonly with interest expense.
  • Equity consists of ownership rights in the company, without the need to pay back any investment.
  • The Debt-to-Equity (D/E) ratio is useful in determining the riskiness of a company's borrowing practices.
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Capital Structure

Understanding Capital Structure

Both debt and equity can be found on the balance sheet. Company assets, also listed on the balance sheet, are purchased with this debt and equity. Capital structure can be a mixture of a company's long-term debt, short-term debt, common stock, and preferred stock. A company's proportion of short-term debt versus long-term debt is considered when analyzing its capital structure.

When analysts refer to capital structure, they are most likely referring to a firm's debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio, which provides insight into how risky a company's borrowing practices are. Usually, a company that is heavily financed by debt has a more aggressive capital structure and therefore poses greater risk to investors. This risk, however, may be the primary source of the firm's growth.

Debt is one of the two main ways a company can raise money in the capital markets. Companies benefit from debt because of its tax advantages; interest payments made as a result of borrowing funds may be tax deductible. Debt also allows a company or business to retain ownership, unlike equity. Additionally, in times of low interest rates, debt is abundant and easy to access.

Equity allows outside investors to take partial ownership in the company. Equity is more expensive than debt, especially when interest rates are low. However, unlike debt, equity does not need to be paid back. This is a benefit to the company in the case of declining earnings. On the other hand, equity represents a claim by the owner on the future earnings of the company.

Measures of Capital Structure

Companies that use more debt than equity to finance their assets and fund operating activities have a high leverage ratio and an aggressive capital structure. A company that pays for assets with more equity than debt has a low leverage ratio and a conservative capital structure. That said, a high leverage ratio and an aggressive capital structure can also lead to higher growth rates, whereas a conservative capital structure can lead to lower growth rates.

Important

It is the goal of company management to find the ideal mix of debt and equity, also referred to as the optimal capital structure, to finance operations.

Analysts use the debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio to compare capital structure. It is calculated by dividing total liabilities by total equity. Savvy companies have learned to incorporate both debt and equity into their corporate strategies. At times, however, companies may rely too heavily on external funding, and debt in particular. Investors can monitor a firm's capital structure by tracking the D/E ratio and comparing it against the company's industry peers.