How Financial Leverage Works

By Gregg Schoenberg Monday, March 25, 2013

In an Operating Leverage post we demonstrated that increasing a firm’s operating leverage, by replacing variable costs with fixed costs, could lead to greater profits; but that it also increased the firm’s risk level. This week, as promised, we’ll take a look at financial leverage and see how the mix of debt and equity financing affects risk and return.

As you may recall from our piece about capital structure, all of the money that you raise for your firm will come in the form of either debt or equity. If you are using any amount of debt financing (i.e. borrowing money) then you are employing financial leverage. If all the money you’ve raised is in the form of equity, then your company is not using any financial leverage.

Financial leverage, like operating leverage, increases a firm’s chance to raise its level of profits, but also leads to greater risk. So when it comes time to raise funds, how do we assess whether to use debt or equity? We can begin with a simple example that demonstrates how the choice between debt and equity affects the owners’ return on their investment (known in the financial parlance as the return on equity or ROE).

For this example we’ll assume that a company needs to raise $100,000, that it can borrow up to $40,000 at a 5% interest rate, and that it pays corporate income taxes at a 40% rate.


Scenario 1: 100% Equity Financing
Balance Sheet      
Assets   Liabilities and Equity  




Income Statement    
Sales $100,000    
Expenses $80,000    
Earnings before
interest and taxes (EBIT)
Taxes (40% Rate) $8,000    
Net Earnings $12,000    
Return on Equity



Scenario 2: 60% Equity Financing, 40% Debt Financing @ 5% Interest Rate

Balance Sheet      
Assets   Liabilities and Equity  
Cash $100,000 Debt  $40,000


Income Statement    
Sales $100,000    
Expenses $80,000    
Earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) $20,000    
Interest Expense $2,000    
Taxable Income $18,000    
Taxes (40% Rate) $7,200    
Net Earnings $10,800    
Return on Equity 18%    

In Scenario 1, the company elects not to issue any debt and winds up with net earnings of $12,000 for a return on equity of 12%.

In Scenario 2 this same company elects to raise 40% of its required funds ($40,000) with debt and winds up with lower net earnings of $10,800 but a significantly higher return on equity of 18%.

What happened? How does issuing debt (and thereby reducing earnings) lead to a higher return on equity?

The answer lies in the fact that under Scenario 2, the company’s owners only invested $60,000 of their own money, instead of the $100,000 invested under Scenario 1, and were able to earn $10,800, or 18%, on that investment. So, this demonstrates one of the two key points we made earlier about financial leverage: that its use can increase a firm’s level of profitability.

And there are actually two important factors at work driving this increased ROE. First is that the firm was able to borrow money at 5% and to earn more than that through its core business activities. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that the company doesn’t have to pay taxes on its interest expenses. It is largely because of this tax advantage that so many companies choose to raise a portion of their financing via debt.

But, as in all cases involving risk and return, the increased returns associated with financial leverage also carry increased risks. Just as financial leverage can increase owners’ return on equity during the good times; it can lead to dramatic, and potentially fatal, reductions in ROE during difficult times. If a firm takes on too much debt in an effort to jack up ROE and things take a turn for the worse, it may be forced to declare bankruptcy if it can’t afford to pay back that debt.

So, when it comes time to choose between debt and equity for your company, remember to analyze carefully the potential effects on both your return and your risk, and to consult with accounting or finance professionals before making any final decisions.

*Disclaimer*: Harvard Business Services, Inc. is neither a law firm nor an accounting firm and, even in cases where the author is an attorney, or a tax professional, nothing in this article constitutes legal or tax advice. This article provides general commentary on, and analysis of, the subject addressed. We strongly advise that you consult an attorney or tax professional to receive legal or tax guidance tailored to your specific circumstances. Any action taken or not taken based on this article is at your own risk. If an article cites or provides a link to third-party sources or websites, Harvard Business Services, Inc. is not responsible for and makes no representations regarding such source’s content or accuracy. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Business Services, Inc.

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