Leveraged Buyout (LBO) Definition: How It Works, with Example

Leveraged Buyout

Investopedia / Matthew Collins

What Is a Leveraged Buyout?

A leveraged buyout (LBO) is the acquisition of another company using a significant amount of borrowed money (bonds or loans) to meet the cost of acquisition. The assets of the company being acquired are often used as collateral for the loans, along with the assets of the acquiring company.

Key Takeaways

  • A leveraged buyout (LBO) occurs when the acquisition of another company is completed almost entirely with borrowed funds.
  • Leveraged buyouts declined in popularity after the 2008 financial crisis, but they are once again on the rise.
  • In an LBO, there is usually a ratio of 90% debt to 10% equity.
  • LBOs have acquired a reputation as a ruthless and predatory business tactic, especially since the target company's assets can be used as leverage against it.

Leveraged Buyouts

Understanding Leveraged Buyouts (LBOs)

In a leveraged buyout (LBO), there is usually a ratio of 90% debt to 10% equity. Because of this high debt/equity ratio, the bonds issued in the buyout are usually not investment grade and are referred to as junk bonds.

LBOs have garnered a reputation for being an especially ruthless and predatory tactic, as the target company doesn't usually sanction the acquisition. Aside from being a hostile move, there is a bit of irony to the process in that the target company's success, in terms of assets on the balance sheet, can be used against it as collateral by the acquiring company.

The purpose of leveraged buyouts is to allow companies to make large acquisitions without having to commit a lot of capital.

LBOs are conducted for three main reasons:

  1. To take a public company private
  2. To spin off a portion of an existing business by selling it
  3. To transfer private property, as is the case with a change in small business ownership

However, it is usually a requirement that the acquired company or entity, in each scenario, is profitable and growing.

Leveraged buyouts have had a notorious history, especially in the 1980s, when several prominent buyouts led to the eventual bankruptcy of the acquired companies. This was mainly due to the fact that the leverage ratio was nearly 100% and the interest payments were so large that the company's operating cash flows were unable to meet the obligation.

Example of Leveraged Buyouts

One of the largest LBOs on record was the acquisition of Hospital Corp. of America (HCA) by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), Bain & Co., and Merrill Lynch in 2006. The three companies valued HCA at around $33 billion.

Although the number of such large acquisitions has declined following the 2008 financial crisis, large-scale LBOs began to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a group of financiers led by Blackstone Group announced a leveraged buyout of Medline that valued the medical equipment manufacturer at $34 billion.

How Does a Leveraged Buyout (LBO) Work?

A leveraged buyout (LBO) is when one company attempts to buy another company, borrowing a large amount of money to finance the acquisition. The acquiring company issues bonds against the combined assets of the two companies, meaning that the assets of the acquired company can actually be used as collateral against it. Although often viewed as a predatory or hostile action, large-scale LBOs experienced a resurgence in the early 2020s.

Why Do LBOs Happen?

Leveraged buyouts (LBOs) are commonly used to make a public company private or to spin off a portion of an existing business by selling it. They can also be used to transfer private property, such as a change in small business ownership. The main advantage of a leveraged buyout is that the acquiring company can purchase a much larger company, leveraging a relatively small portion of its own assets.

What Type of Companies Are Attractive for LBOs?

Equity firms typically target mature companies in established industries for leveraged buyouts rather than fledgling or more speculative industries. The best candidates for LBOs typically have strong, dependable operating cash flows, well-established product lines, strong management teams, and viable exit strategies so that the acquirer can realize gains.

The Bottom Line

A leveraged buyout (LBO) refers to the process of one company acquiring another using mostly borrowed funds to carry out the transaction. Firms often carry out LBOs to take a company private or to spin off part of an existing business. The ratio of debt to equity is generally around 90% to 10%, which generally translates to lower credit ratings for the bonds issued in the buyout.

Leveraged buyouts are often seen as a predatory business tactic because the target company has little control over approving the deal, and its own assets can be used as leverage against it. LBOs declined following 2008 financial crisis but have seen increased activity in recent years.

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  1. HCA Healthcare, Investor Relations. “HCA Completes Merger with Private Investor Group.”

  2. Blackstone. “Blackstone, Carlyle and Hellman & Friedman to Invest in Medline.”

  3. Financial Times. “Private Equity Group Reaches Deal to Buy Medline for $34bn.”

  4. Business Insider. “How Private Equity Firms Screen for LBO Candidates.”