Finance and Economics Discussion Series (FEDS)
Does Private Equity Over-Lever Portfolio Companies?
Detractors have warned that Private Equity (PE) funds tend to over-lever their portfolio companies because of an option-like payoff, building up default risk and debt overhang. This paper argues PE-ownership leads to substantially higher levels of optimal (value-maximizing) leverage, by reducing the expected cost of financial distress. Using data from a large sample of PE buyouts, I estimate a dynamic trade-off model where leverage is chosen by the PE investor. The model is able to explain both the level and change in leverage documented empirically following buyouts. The increase in optimal leverage is driven primarily by a reduction in the portfolio company’s asset volatility and, to a lesser extent, an increase in asset return. Counterfactual analysis shows significant loss in firm value if PE sub-optimally chose lower leverage. Consistent with lower asset volatility, additional tests show PE-backed firms experience lower volatility of sales and receive greater equity injections for distress resolution, compared to non PE-backed firms. Overall, my findings broaden our understanding of factors that drive buyout leverage.
Keywords: Private Equity; Capital Structure; Default Risk; Trade-off Theory
PDF: Full Paper
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