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Course 207
Leverage

Introduction

When multibillion-dollar hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management nearly collapsed in September 1998, the main culprit was not the esoteric investments the fund had made. Rather, it was the excessive amount of leverage the fund had used in its positions. That leverage helped the fund post hefty returns while the market was soaring, but it came close to bankrupting the fund when the market went south in late summer. Leverage increases the potential returns on each dollar invested, but it also increases the risk.

Leverage in Stock Investing

Buying stocks on margin is one form of leverage. When buying on margin, an investor puts up a certain percentage of the purchase price (at least half, according to current regulations) and borrows the rest from a broker. Suppose you put up a $50 margin to buy $100 worth of stock; that means you're leveraged 2-to-1, or you control two dollars worth of stock for every dollar invested. If the stock price goes up to $110, you can sell your shares and use $50 to pay back the broker, and you're left with $60, including $10 in profit. Even though the stock only went up 10%, leverage got you a 20% return on your original $50 investment (the $10 profit divided by the $50 investment). The downside is that leverage magnifies the potential losses just as much as the potential gains. If the stock had gone down 10%, you still would have had to pay back $50 to the broker, but your original investment of $50 would be reduced to $40, a loss of 20%.

What Financial Leverage Is

Leverage is important in evaluating a business, too. Businesses have to decide how leveraged they want to be, and just as in the securities markets, increased leverage increases potential profitability and potential risk. The most common measure of leverage for publicly traded companies is financial leverage, equal to assets divided by equity. Financial leverage is a concept that anyone with a home mortgage can relate to. A homebuyer who puts $5,000 down on a $100,000 house has a financial-leverage ratio of 20. For every dollar in equity, the buyer has $20 in assets. The same holds true for companies. In 1999, entertainment conglomerate Walt Disney DIS had a financial-leverage ratio of 2.1, meaning that for every dollar in equity, the firm had $2.10 in total assets. (It borrowed the other $1.10.) A financial-leverage ratio of 2.1 is fairly conservative. It's when we see ratios of 4, 5, or more that companies start to get risky. Just like a homebuyer with an oversized mortgage, a company with lots of debt will have steep interest payments. If it can't meet those payments, it will go bankrupt. Such indebted outfits are vulnerable to recessions and rising interest rates, since both can make it tougher to meet interest payments. Not surprisingly, some of the most highly leveraged companies tend to be distressed firms, which are typically on the brink of bankruptcy and swimming in debt. Such concerns often have the worst of both worlds: a risky business and a high financial-leverage ratio. For example, Trans World Airlines TWA boasts a financial-leverage ratio of more than 10, a frightening figure for a company in a cyclical industry.

How Much Leverage Is Too Much?

That said, just because a company's financial leverage is greater than that of the S&P 500 index doesn't mean it's reckless with its balance sheet. Take financials, such as bank holding company MBNA MBNA (best known for its credit cards) or financial conglomerate Citigroup C, which use far more leverage than most companies outside the financials industry. The average company in the financials sector has a financial-leverage ratio of more than 12, compared with about 2.5 for the S&P 500 as a whole. Banks and other lenders make much of their money off the difference between the rates at which they borrow and the rates at which they lend. Given these often-narrow spreads, their profits would be negligible if they didn't borrow a lot. Companies that would seem to have the least need for debt financing, such as those that are profitable and growing steadily, sometimes use financial leverage as a way to boost profitability. By taking on debt, a company can keep its equity small, thereby increasing the profit it can make as a percentage of that equity. In an attempt to pump up returns on equity, or ROE, for example, a steady grower such as food producer ConAgra CAG can take on extra debt. Utility companies, which have extremely stable cash flows, will often take advantage of their ample borrowing capacity for the same reason. Investors will want to make sure that a company with a high financial-leverage ratio relative to its industry can meet interest payments year in and year out. This means finding companies with consistent and reliable cash-flow streams that are sufficient to cover those interest payments. If something goes wrong, either with the company itself or with the general economy, a highly leveraged company can find itself in trouble, just as Long-Term Capital Management did. Leverage can be a good thing for both investors and businesses, but it is important to be aware of the very real dangers involved.

Quiz 207
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Buying stocks on margin:
a. Requires you to put up more money than the value of the stock you're buying.
b. Is a good way for beginners to get into buying stocks.
c. Magnifies both the potential gains and the potential losses.
2 If a company has $3 million in assets and financial leverage of 2.0, its equity is:
a. $1.5 million.
b. $6 million.
c. $3 million.
3 Which of the following is <em>not</em> true of highly leveraged companies?
a. They always have high net margins.
b. They are especially vulnerable to recessions.
c. They have steep interest payments.
4 Which of the following types of companies can least afford high financial leverage?
a. Slow-growth companies.
b. Classic-growth companies.
c. Distressed companies.
5 A company can afford to have higher-than-average financial leverage if:
a. It has low net margins.
b. It has a consistent and reliable cash-flow stream.
c. It is in a cyclical industry.
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