The practice of borrowing money to increase potential returns

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What is Leverage?

In finance, leverage is a strategy that companies use to increase assets, cash flows, and returns, though it can also magnify losses. There are two main types of leverage: financial and operating. To increase financial leverage, a firm may borrow capital through issuing fixed-income securities or by borrowing money directly from a lender.

Operating leverage can also be used to magnify cash flows and returns, and can be attained through increasing revenues or profit margins. Both methods are accompanied by risk, such as insolvency, but can be very beneficial to a business.

Leverage - Diagram

Financial Leverage

When a company uses debt financing, its financial leverage increases. More capital is available to boost returns, at the cost of interest payments, which affect net earnings.

Example 1

Bob and Jim are both looking to purchase the same house that costs $500,000. Bob plans to make a 10% down payment and take a $450,000 mortgage for the rest of the payment (mortgage cost is 5% annually). Jim wants to purchase the house for $500,000 cash today. Who will realize a higher return on investment if they sell the house for $550,000 a year from today?

   Financial Leverage - Example 1


Although Jim makes a higher profit, Bob sees a much higher return on investment because he made $27,500 profit with an investment of only $50,000 (while Jim made $50,000 profit with a $500,000 investment).

Example 2

Using the same example above, Bob and Jim realize they can only sell the house for $400,000 after a year. Who will see a greater loss on their investment?

Financial Leverage - Example 2

Now that the value of the house decreased, Bob will see a much higher percentage loss on his investment (-245%), and a higher absolute dollar amount loss because of the cost of financing. In this instance, leverage has resulted in an increased loss.

Financial Leverage Ratio

The financial leverage ratio is an indicator of how much debt a company is using to finance its assets. A high ratio means the firm is highly levered (using a large amount of debt to finance its assets). A low ratio indicates the opposite.

Financial Leverage Ratio


The balance sheet of Companies XYX Inc. and XYW Inc. are as follows. Which company has a higher financial leverage ratio?

Financial Leverage Ratio - Example 1

Financial Leverage Ratio - Example 2

XYX Inc.

  • Total Assets = 1,100
  • Equity = 800
  • Financial Leverage Ratio = Total Assets / Equity = 1,100 / 800 = 1.375x

XYW Inc.

  • Total Assets = 1,050
  • Equity = 650
  • Financial Leverage Ratio = Total Assets / Equity = 1,050 / 650 = 1.615x

Company XYW Inc. reports a higher financial leverage ratio. This indicates that the company is financing a higher portion of its assets by using debt.

Operating Leverage

Fixed operating expenses, combined with higher revenues or profit, give a company operating leverage, which magnifies the upside or downside of its operating profit.


The income statement of Companies XYZ and ABC are the same. Company XYZ’s operating expenses are variable, at 20% of revenue. Company ABC’s operating expenses are fixed at $20.


Operating Leverage


Which company will see a higher net income if revenue increases by $50?

If revenue increases by $50, Company ABC will realize a higher net income because of its operating leverage (its operating expenses are $20 while Company XYZ’s are at $30).

  Operating Leverage - Example 1  

Which company will realize a lower net income if revenue decreases by $50?

When revenue decreases by $50, Company ABC loses more due to its operating leverage, which magnifies its losses (Company XYZ’s operating expenses were variable and adjusted to the lower revenue, while Company ABC’s operating expenses stayed fixed).


Operating Leverage - Example 2

Operating Leverage Formula

The operating leverage formula measures the proportion of fixed costs per unit of variable or total cost. When comparing different companies, the same formula should be used.


Operating Leverage Formula 


Company A and company B both manufacture soda pop in glass bottles. Company A produced 30,000 bottles, which cost them $2 each. Company B produced 45,000 bottles at a price of $2.50 each. Company A pays $20,000 in rent, and company B pays $35,000. Both companies pay an annual rent, which is their only fixed expense. Compute the operating leverage of each company using both methods.

Operating Leverage Formula - Example

Step 1: Compute the total variable cost

  • Company A: $2/bottle * 30,000 bottles = $60,000
  • Company B: $2.50/bottle * 45,000 bottles = $112,500

Step 2: Find the fixed costs

In our example, the fixed costs are the rent expenses for each company.

  • Company A: $20,000
  • Company B: $35,000

Step 3: Compute the total costs

  • Company A: Total variable cost + Total fixed cost = $60,000 + $20,000 = $80,000
  • Company B: Total variable cost + Total fixed cost = $112,500 + $35,000 = $147,500

Step 4: Compute the operating leverages

Method 1:

Operating Leverage = Fixed costs / Variable costs

  • Company A: $20,000 / $60,000 = 0.333x
  • Company B: $35,000 / $112,500 = 0.311x

Method 2:

Operating Leverage = Fixed costs / Total costs

  • Company A: $20,000 / $80,000 = 0.250x
  • Company B: $35,000 / $147,500 = 0.237x

More Resources

Thank you for reading CFI’s explanation of leverage. To keep advancing your career, the additional CFI resources below will be useful:

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