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The Mystery of Zero-Leverage Firms

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  • Ilya A. Strebulaev
  • Baozhong Yang

Abstract

This paper documents the puzzling evidence that a substantial number of large public non-financial US firms follow a zero-debt policy. Over the 1962-2009 period, on average 10.2% of such firms have zero debt and almost 22% have less than 5% book leverage ratio. Neither industry nor size can account for such puzzling behavior. Zero-leverage behavior is a persistent phenomenon, with 30% of zero-debt firms refrain from debt for at least five consecutive years. Particularly surprising is the presence of a large number of zero-leverage firms who pay dividends. They are more profitable, pay higher taxes, issue less equity, and have higher cash balances than their proxies chosen by industry and size. These firms also pay substantially higher dividends than their proxies and thus their total payout ratio is virtually independent of leverage. Firms with higher CEO ownership and longer CEO tenure are more likely to follow a zero-leverage policy, especially if boards are smaller and less independent. Family firms are also more likely to be zero-levered. Our results suggest that managerial and governance characteristics are related to the zero-leverage phenomena in an important way.

Suggested Citation

  • Ilya A. Strebulaev & Baozhong Yang, 2012. "The Mystery of Zero-Leverage Firms," NBER Working Papers 17946, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17946 Note: CF
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    Cited by:

    1. Anat R. Admati & Peter M. DeMarzo & Martin F. Hellwig & Paul Pfleiderer, 2013. "The Leverage Ratchet Effect," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2013_13, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, revised Sep 2017.
    2. Arellano, Cristina & Bai, Yan & Zhang, Jing, 2012. "Firm dynamics and financial development," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 59(6), pages 533-549.
    3. Joaquim Ramalho & Jacinto Vidigal da Silva, 2011. "Functional form issues in the regression analysis of financial leverage ratios," CEFAGE-UE Working Papers 2011_28, University of Evora, CEFAGE-UE (Portugal).
    4. Cronqvist, Henrik & Low, Angie & Nilsson, Mattias, 2007. "Does Corporate Culture Matter for Firm Policies?," Working Paper Series 2007-1, Ohio State University, Charles A. Dice Center for Research in Financial Economics.
    5. Joaquim Ramalho & J. Silva, 2013. "Functional form issues in the regression analysis of financial leverage ratios," Empirical Economics, Springer, pages 799-831.
    6. John R. Graham & Mark T. Leary & Michael R. Roberts, 2013. "A Century of Capital Structure: The Leveraging of Corporate America," NBER Chapters,in: New Perspectives on Corporate Capital Structure National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Michael R. Roberts, 2014. "The Role of Dynamic Renegotiation and Asymmetric Information in Financial Contracting," NBER Working Papers 20484, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Ramin P. Baghai & Henri Servaes & Ane Tamayo, 2014. "Have Rating Agencies Become More Conservative? Implications for Capital Structure and Debt Pricing," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 69(5), pages 1961-2005, October.
    9. Acharya, Viral V & Davydenko, Sergei A. & Strebulaev, Ilya, 2009. "Cash Holdings and Credit Risk," CEPR Discussion Papers 7125, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • G3 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance
    • G32 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Financing Policy; Financial Risk and Risk Management; Capital and Ownership Structure; Value of Firms; Goodwill
    • G34 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Mergers; Acquisitions; Restructuring; Corporate Governance
    • G35 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Payout Policy

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