The Risk Anomaly Tradeoff of Leverage

by Malcolm Baker, Mathias F. Hoeyer, and Jeffrey Wurgler

Overview — This paper develops a tradeoff theory of capital structure, testing the idea that firms with low risk assets—and hence underpriced equity—may want to rely disproportionately on debt. The model accommodates both corporate finance and asset pricing evidence, renewing a fruitful connection between asset pricing and corporate finance research.

Author Abstract

Higher-beta and higher-volatility equities do not earn commensurately higher returns, a pattern known as the risk anomaly. In this paper, we consider the possibility that the risk anomaly represents mispricing and develop its implications for corporate leverage. The risk anomaly generates a simple tradeoff theory: at zero leverage, the overall cost of capital falls as leverage increases equity risk, but as debt becomes riskier, the marginal benefit of increasing equity risk declines. We show that there is an interior optimum and that it is reached at lower leverage for firms with high asset risk. Empirically, the risk anomaly tradeoff theory and the traditional tradeoff theory are both consistent with the finding that firms with low-risk assets choose higher leverage. More uniquely, the risk anomaly theory helps to explain why leverage is inversely related to systematic risk, holding constant total risk; why leverage is inversely related to upside risk, not just downside risk; why numerous firms maintain low or zero leverage despite high marginal tax rates; and, why other firms maintain high leverage despite little tax benefit.

Paper Information

  • Full Working Paper Text
  • Working Paper Publication Date: March 2016
  • HBS Working Paper Number: NBER Working Paper Series, No. 22166
  • Faculty Unit(s): Finance