What Is Degearing?

Degearing is the process in which a company alters its capital structure by replacing its long-term debt with equity, thereby easing the burden of interest payments and also increasing management's flexibility.

A company's managers may decide to degear when their gearing ratio increases to the point that they have a larger proportion of debt versus equity. A high level of debt could lead to a company having difficulty making timely debt payments and could increase a company's risk of defaulting on a loan or even bankruptcy. For these reasons, a company will take steps to reduce its debt load through the degearing process.

Key Takeaways

  • Degearing is the process in which a company alters its capital structure by replacing long-term debt with equity.
  • Long-term debt refers to any debt or liability that must be repaid in more than one year, such as bonds, loans, and leasing obligations.
  • Equity financing refers to a company raising funds from investors by selling an ownership stake in the company in the form of shares.
  • A company will degear in an effort to reduce the financial risk that could occur if it's unable to repay its high level of debt at some point in the future.
  • Investors can review a company's net gearing ratio as part of their analysis to determine if a company might be a good investment.

Understanding Degearing

A company's capital structure refers to the combination of debt and equity it uses to fund its operations and its growth. A company is highly geared or highly leveraged when a large portion of its capital structure is made up of long-term debt. A company's long-term debt (which is any debt or liability that must be repaid in more than one year) can come in various forms, such as bonds, leasing obligations, and loans.

Degearing is a company's movement away from a capital structure relying on long-term debt. A company's managers will use degearing in an effort to decrease financial risk. The financial risk they are trying to reduce is the possibility that shareholders or other financial stakeholders will lose money when they invest in a company that has debt if the company's cash flow fails to meet its financial obligations. Instead of using debt to raise the money needed to fund operations and growth, the company will seek equity financing from investors by selling an ownership stake in the company in the form of shares.

Special Considerations

Investors can review a company's net gearing ratio as part of their analysis to determine if a company might be a good investment. This ratio represents the amount of existing equity that would be needed to pay off the company's current debts. To calculate this percentage, divide a company's total debt, including bank overdrafts, by its total shareholders' equity. You can find these figures on a company's balance sheet

For example, suppose Company ABC has a total debt of $5 million and shareholders' equity of $50 million. This would give Company ABC a net gearing ratio of 10%. This indicates the company should be able to pay off its debt several times over. Lenders and investors would most likely consider Company ABC to be a low-risk investment because its low gearing ratio reflects the company's greater financial stability.

However, be aware that determining a good versus bad gearing ratio for a company often depends on the sector or industry in which the company operates. For example, the oil refining and production industry is a capital-intensive business that requires a lot of fixed assets to generate revenue. Companies in the oil industry often have more debt compared to other companies. Because of this, the gearing ratio for oil producers might be much higher than companies in other industries that are less capital intensive.

When analyzing a company's net gearing ratio, be sure to compare it to companies operating in the same industry or sector. This apples-to-apples comparison can give you a better idea if the company is at a higher or lower financial risk than its main competitors.

Example of Degearing

After the Great Recession of 2007-2009, many banks and the real estate sector had to shed debt and degear. For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland had to sell property assets built up before the recession. This included the sale of £1.4 billion of toxic UK commercial property loans, which it sold to private equity group Blackstone.

Accounting firm PwC reported there was a significant amount of degearing of bank balance sheets after the economic crisis. As a result, the performance expectations of the pre-crisis era were no longer valid. By some estimates, wrote PwC, as much as four percentage points of banks' pre-crisis return on equity (ROE) was attributable to gearing alone.