How Leverage Hurts Investors

I was appointed the finance correspondent for Senior Life Advisor, an online magazine for investors near or in retirement. The articles for Senior Life Advisor were designed to offer actionable information as well as items of interest about economics, investing and personal finance.

Companies frequently use loans to finance their operations.  This so-called leverage can be a prudent use of capital, but it can be dangerous too. 

The reason for this is debt, once on the books, represents a fixed cost in the form of interest payments that cannot be easily adjusted.  That means when sales decline, the impact of interest expense is magnified.  

There is another kind of leverage too:  Operational leverage.  Companies with high fixed costs such as property and equipment can reduce the cost per unit by producing more units.  That’s leverage.  But if conditions change, operationally levered companies have fewer choices to manage expenses while those with a variable cost structure can adapt quickly to prevailing conditions.  

What kinds of companies have high fixed costs?  Think of manufacturers like Boeing and Ford  who make huge investments in capital equipment to bend metal, weld parts and warehouse inventory.  Whether Boeing makes one plane or 1,000 those costs don’t change.  

But the risk of operational leverage is compounded when executive leadership takes on huge levels of debt.   And Boeing (BA) and Ford (F) happen to be among the most levered companies in the United States according to an analysis by Investor’s Business Daily.  Boeing’s total debt is a whopping 58 times it’s cashflow.  Ford’s is 18 times it’s cashflow.  While interest is a fraction of the total debt, the interest expense gets bigger and bigger as a percentage of cashflow when sales and profits sink.  In truly dire circumstances, interest can eclipse cashflow and if that happens, nothing good follows.  


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