Aswath Damodaran – The Trade Off on Debt and the Tax Reform Package

In the United States, as in much of the rest of the world, and as has been true for most of the last century, the tax code has been tilted towards debt, rewarding firms that borrow money with tax savings, relative to those that use equity to fund their operations. While the original rationale for this debt bias was to allow the large infrastructure companies of the equity markets (railroads, followed by phone and natural resource companies) to raise financing to fund their growth, that reason has long dissipated, but a significant segment of the economy is built on debt. The most revolutionary component of the US tax reform package that passed at the end of last year is that it reduces the benefits of debt in multiple ways, and by doing so, challenges companies that have long depended on debt to reexamine their financing policies.

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The Trade Off on Debt and the Tax Reform Package
In last year’s update on debt, I summarized the trade off on debt, listing both the real pluses and minuses of debt as well as what I called the illusory benefits. In the latter group, I included reasons like debt is cheaper than equity and dilution benefits:
The bottom line is that it is the tax advantage of debt that makes it attractive to equity, and the benefits to borrowing were greater in the United States than in any other country last year, for a simple reason. The US had the highest marginal corporate tax rate in the world, at 40%, and companies that borrowed effectively claimed their tax benefits at that rate. To the oft touted counter that no US companies pay 40%, that is true, but it actually makes the tax benefit of debt even more perverse. Companies in the United States have been able to pay effective tax rates well below 40%, while maximizing their tax benefits from debt. As an example, consider Apple, which paid an effective tax rate of less than 25% on its global income last year, partly because it left so much of its foreign income off shore (as trapped cash). Apple still managed to borrow almost $110 billion in the United States, and claim the interest expenses on that debt as a tax deduction against its highest taxed income (its US income). For those of you who find this unethical, please spare me the moralizing since your disdain should be directed at those who wrote the tax code.
As I noted in my post on the changes that tax reform is bringing, the biggest are going to be to the tax benefits of debt, which will be dramatically decreased starting this year, for two reasons:
    1. Lower marginal tax rate: The marginal tax rate for the United States has gone from being the highest in the world to close to the middle. At a 24% marginal tax rate, which is where I think we will end up with state and local taxes added to the new federal tax rate of 21%, you are effectively reducing the tax benefit of debt by about 40% (from 40% to 24%). In the heat map below, I have highlighted marginal tax rates of countries, with a highlighting in shades of rec of those that will have lower marginal tax rates than the US after 2018. To provide a contrast, this picture would have been entirely in shades of red last year, before the tax rate change, since there was no other country with a corporate tax higher than 40%.
    1. via

  1. Limits on interest tax deductions: Until last year, as has been the case for much of the last century, US companies have been able to claim their interest expenses as tax deductions, as long as they have the income to cover these expenses. With the new tax code, there is a limit to how much interest you can deduct, at 30% of “operating income”. Any excess interest expenses that cannot be deducted can be carried forward and claimed in future years, and that provision will help companies with volatile earnings, since they will be able to claim back deductions lost in a bad year, in good years. As is its wont, Congress has chosen to make up its own definitions of operating income, with EBITDA standing on for operating income until 2022 and then transitioning to earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).
There are two other provisions in the tax code which will also indirectly affect the debt trade off.
  1. Capital Expensing: Attempting to encourage investments in physical assets, especially at manufacturing companies, the tax code will allow companies to expense their capital investments for a temporary period. The resulting tax deductions may be large enough to reduce the benefit to having the interest tax deduction. That effect will be magnified by the fact that the companies that are most likely to be using the capital expensing provisions are also the companies that have used debt the most in funding their operations.
  2. Un-trapped Cash: As companies are allowed to pay a one-time tax and bring trapped cash back to the United States, the cash will be now available for other uses and reduce the need for debt as a funding source. Note that estimates of this trapped cash, collectively held by US companies, exceed $3 trillion and that even if only half of this cash is brought back, it would still be a substantial amount.
All in all, there are multiple provisions in the tax code that handicap the use of debt and very few, perhaps even none, that would make debt a more attractive source of financing.
Optimal Capital Structure
To quantify the impact of the tax code’s change on how much debt a company should have and how much value it adds, I used an old but flexible optimizing tool: the cost of capital. It is, of course, the number around which a post looking at how it varies around the world and sectors. In the follow up post, I used the cost of capital as a hurdle rate to judge the quality of a company’s investments. In this one, I will use it to talk about the right mix of debt and equity, and how it affects value:
Note that as you borrow more money, your costs of equity and debt go into motion, increasing as the debt increases and the trade off from the last section plays out, with the tax benefits showing up as an after-tax cost of debt and the bankruptcy costs partially captured in the higher costs of both equity and debt and partially as drops in operating income. Note that the key changes in the 2017 tax reform package, at least as they relate to the trade off, are highlighted. I used Disney as an illustrative example, and computed the costs of capital at every debt ratio under the old tax regime and the new one and the results are in the graph below:

Disney Capital Structure Spreadsheet

The cost of capital is a driver of the value of the operating assets, and since the costs of capital are higher at every debt ratio than they used to be, it should come as no surprise that the value added by debt has dropped at every debt ratio, with the new tax code.

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The easiest way to see the effects of the new tax code are to look at how it plays out in the cost of capital and values of real companies. I will use Facebook, Disney and Ford as my examples, partly because they are all high profile and partly because they have widely divergent current debt policies, with Facebook having almost no debt, Disney a moderate amount and Ford more debt. With each firm, I computed the schedule of cost of capital, holding all else constant (both micro variables like EBIT and EBITDA and macro variables like the risk free rate and ERP.), with the old and new tax codes. I do this, not because I believe that these numbers will not be affected by the tax code, but because I want to isolate its impact on debt.
Download spreadsheets: Disney, Facebook & Ford
For all three firms, the effect of the new tax code is unambiguous. The value added by debt drops with the new tax code and the change is larger at higher debt ratios. Taking away 40% of the tax benefits of debt (by lowering the marginal tax rate from 40% to 24%) has consequences. Note, though, that the lost value is almost entirely hypothetical, for Facebook, since it did not borrow money even under the old code and did not have much capacity to add value from debt in the first place. It is large, for Disney and Ford, as existing debt becomes less valuable, with the new tax reform. Note, though, that both companies will also benefit from the tax code changes, paying lower taxes on income both domestically, with the lowering of the US tax rate, and on foreign income, from the shift to a regional tax model. Ford, in particular, could also benefit from the capital expensing provision. My guess is that both firms will see a net increase in value, with all changes incorporated. With these three firms, at least, the cap on the interest expense deduction (set at 30% of EBITDA for the near term) does not affect value at their existing debt ratios and is not a binding constraint until they get to very high debt ratios.
Debt Ratios- Cross Sectional Distributions
If you accept my reasoning that the new tax code will lower the value of debt in capital structure, and that the effect will be most visible at firms that borrowed a lot of money under the old tax regime, the only way to assess the tax code’s impact is to look how debt ratios vary across companies, and what type of firms and in what sectors borrow the most.
To get a measure of what comprises a high debt ratio, I started by looking at the distribution of debt ratios across companies, for both US and global companies:

I was surprised by how many firms in the global sample have little or no debit their capital structure, with more than half of all firms in the sample having total debt to capital ratios of less than 10%. In fact, netting cash out from debt would lead to even lower net debt ratios. That said, there is enough debt at the largest firms that the aggregated debt ratios across all firms is significantly higher. Looking at these aggregated debt ratios, you would expect US companies to have been borrowing more money than companies in other parts of the world, and to see if they did, I looked at measures of financial leverage, from debt scaled to capital to debt to EBITDA globally:


Sub Group Debt/Capital (Book) Debt/Capital (Market) Net Debt/ Capital (Book) Net Debt/ Capital (Market) Debt/EBITDA
Africa and Middle East 45.23% 34.00% 30.27% 21.31% 5.99
Australia & NZ 61.66% 43.48% 57.82% 39.60% 8.57
Canada 55.35% 42.42% 52.46% 39.60% 7.16
China 51.63% 39.34% 41.83% 30.40% 8.52
EU & Environs 60.75% 47.17% 53.68% 40.07% 7.78
Eastern Europe & Russia 31.02% 38.05% 21.35% 27.05% 2.47
India 54.89% 20.85% 50.58% 18.15% 3.92
Japan 56.16% 49.11% 27.64% 22.35% 7.61
Latin America & Caribbean 51.67% 40.01% 46.23% 34.90% 5.74
Small Asia 44.04% 34.76% 36.01% 27.59% 4.54
UK 63.74% 46.39% 53.68% 36.33% 7.94
United States 64.06% 37.11% 60.86% 33.99% 7.09
The results are mixed. While US companies look like they are the most highly levered in the world, if you scale debt (gross and net) to book value, US companies don’t look like outliers on any of the dimensions. In fact, the only real outliers seem to be East European companies that borrow far less than the rest of the world, relative to EBITDA, and Indian companies, that borrow less, relative to market value. Looking across sectors, you do see clear differences, with some sectors almost completely unburdened with debt and others less so. While you can get the entire list from clicking on this link, the most highly levered sectors in the US are highlight below, relative to both market capital and EBITDA.

Download full sector spreadsheet

I removed financial service firms from this list, since debt to them is a raw material, not a source of capital, and real estate investment trusts, since they do not pay corporate taxes, under the old and new tax regimes. As I noted in my post on tax reform, it is the most highly levered sectors that will be exposed to loss of value and it is entirely possible that the net effect of the tax change can be negative for them.

You seldom get to observe a real world experiment of the magnitude that we will be faced with in 2018, with the tax code in change and the loss in value added from debt. Given the changes, I would expect the following:
  1. Deleveraging at firms that have pushed to their optimal debt ratios, under old tax code: While there are many firms, like Facebook. where debt was never a source of added value, where the tax code will affect that component of value very little, there will be other highly levered firms where the value change will be substantial. In fact, many of these firms, which would have been at the right mix of debt and equity, under the old tax regime, will find themselves over levered and in need of paying down debt. Given that inertia is the primary force in corporate finance, it may them a while to come to this realization.
  2. Go slow at firms that have held back: For firms like Facebook that have held back from borrowing, under the old tax code, the new tax code reduces the incentive to add to debt, even as they mature. As you can see from the numbers on Facebook, Disney and Ford, the benefits of debt have been significantly scaled down.
  3. Transactions that derive most of their value from leverage will be handicapped: Since the mid-1980s, leveraged transactions have been favored by many private equity investors. While one reason was that they were equity constrained (and that reason remains), the bigger reason was that it allowed them to generate added value from recapitalization. At the risk of over generalizing, I will argue that for a large segment of private equity investors, this was the primary source of their value added and for these investors, the new tax code is unequivocally bad news, and I will shed no tears for them.

As I noted at the start of this post, debt is part of the fabric of business in the United States, and there are some businesses and asset classes that have been built on debt. Real estate and infrastructure businesses have historically not only used debt as a primary source of funding but as a value addition, with the added value coming from the tax code. Now that the added value is much lower, it remains to be seen whether asset values will have to adjust.

From financial first principles, there is nothing inherently good or bad about debt. It is a source of financing that you can use to build a business, but by itself, it neither adds nor detracts from the value of the business. It is the addition of tax benefits and bankruptcy costs that makes the use of debt a trade off between its benefits (primarily tax driven) and its costs (from increased distress and agency costs). The new tax code has not removed the tax benefits of debt but it has substantially reduced them, and we should expect to see less debt overall at companies, as a consequence. In my view, that is a positive for the economy, since debt magnifies economic shocks to businesses and not only creates more volatile earnings and value, but deadweight costs for society.

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  1. Debt Ratios by Sector, US (January 2018)
  2. Debt Ratios by Sector, Global (January 2018)
Data Update Posts
  1. January 2018 Data Update 1: Numbers don't lie, or do they?
  2. January 2018 Data Update 2: The Buoyancy of US Equities!
  3. January 2018 Data Update 3: Taxing Questions on Value
  4. January 2018 Data Update 4: The Currency Conundrum
  5. January 2018 Data Update 5: Country Risk Update
  6. January 2018 Data Update 6: A Cost of Capital Primer
  7. January 2018 Data Update 7: Growth and Value - Investment Returns
  8. January 2018 Data Update 8: Debt and Taxes
  9. January 2018 Data Update 9: The Cash Harvest - Dividend Policy
  10. January 2018 Data Update 10: The Pricing Prerogative

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Please note that I do not read comments posted here, nor respond to messages here. I don't have the time. If you want my attention, you must seek it directly at my blog. Aswath Damodaran is the Kerschner Family Chair Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He teaches the corporate finance and equity valuation courses in the MBA program. He received his MBA and Ph.D from the University of California at Los Angeles. His research interests lie in valuation, portfolio management and applied corporate finance. He has written three books on equity valuation (Damodaran on Valuation, Investment Valuation, The Dark Side of Valuation) and two on corporate finance (Corporate Finance: Theory and Practice, Applied Corporate Finance: A User’s Manual). He has co-edited a book on investment management with Peter Bernstein (Investment Management) and has a book on investment philosophies (Investment Philosophies). His newest book on portfolio management is titled Investment Fables and was released in 2004. His latest book is on the relationship between risk and value, and takes a big picture view of how businesses should deal with risk, and was published in 2007. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1984 to 1986, where he received the Earl Cheit Outstanding Teaching Award in 1985. He has been at NYU since 1986, received the Stern School of Business Excellence in Teaching Award (awarded by the graduating class) in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1999, 2001, 2007, 2008 and 2009, and was the youngest winner of the University-wide Distinguished Teaching Award (in 1990). He was profiled in Business Week as one of the top twelve business school professors in the United States in 1994.