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The Leverage Ratchet Effect

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  • Admati, Anat R.

    (Stanford University)

  • DeMarzo, Peter M.

    (Stanford University)

  • Hellwig, Martin F.

    (Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn)

  • Pfleiderer, Paul

    (Stanford University)

Abstract

This paper explores the dynamics of corporate leverage when funding decisions are made in the interests of shareholders. In the absence of prior commitments or regulations, shareholder-creditor conflicts give rise to a leverage ratchet effect, which induces shareholders to resist reductions while favoring increases in leverage even when total-value maximization calls for the opposite. Unlike inefficiencies based on asymmetric information, the leverage ratchet effect applies to all forms of leverage reduction, including earnings retentions and rights offerings. The leverage ratchet effect is present even in the absence of frictions other than the inability to write complete contracts. The effect creates an agency cost of debt that lowers the value of the leveraged firm. Standard frictions magnify the impact of the effect. In a dynamic context, since leverage becomes effectively irreversible, firms may limit leverage initially but then ratchet it up in response to shocks. The resulting leverage dynamics can produce outcomes that cannot be explained by simple tradeoff considerations.

Suggested Citation

  • Admati, Anat R. & DeMarzo, Peter M. & Hellwig, Martin F. & Pfleiderer, Paul, 2015. "The Leverage Ratchet Effect," Research Papers 3435, Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:stabus:3435
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    1. Sudipto Bhattacharya & Kjell G. Nyborg, 2013. "Bank Bailout Menus," Review of Corporate Finance Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 2(1), pages 29-61.
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    3. DeAngelo, Harry & Stulz, Rene M., 2013. "Why High Leverage Is Optimal for Banks," Working Paper Series 2013-08, Ohio State University, Charles A. Dice Center for Research in Financial Economics.
    4. Gorton, Gary B., 2010. "Slapped by the Invisible Hand: The Panic of 2007," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199734153.
    5. Kenneth R. French & Martin N. Baily & John Y. Campbell & John H. Cochrane & Douglas W. Diamond & Darrell Duffie & Anil K Kashyap & Frederic S. Mishkin & Raghuram G. Rajan & David S. Scharfstein & Robe, 2010. "The Squam Lake Report: Fixing the Financial System," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, number 9261.
    6. Ilya A. Strebulaev & Baozhong Yang, 2012. "The Mystery of Zero-Leverage Firms," NBER Working Papers 17946, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Florian Heider & Alexander Ljungqvist, 2012. "As Certain as Debt and Taxes: Estimating the Tax Sensitivity of Leverage from Exogenous State Tax Changes," NBER Working Papers 18263, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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