Corporate Deleveraging and Financial Flexibility

Corporate Deleveraging and Financial Flexibility Abstract Most firms deleverage from their historical peak market-leverage (ML) ratios to near-zero ML, while also markedly increasing cash balances to high levels. Among 4,476 nonfinancial firms with five or more years of post-peak data, median ML is 0.543 at the peak and 0.026 at the later trough, with a six-year median time from peak to trough and with debt repayment and earnings retention accounting for 93.7% of the median peak-to-trough decline in ML. The findings support theories in which firms deleverage to restore ample financial flexibility and are difficult to reconcile with most firms having materially positive leverage targets. Received November 17, 2016; editorial decision November 9, 2017 by Editor David Denis. Authors have furnished an Internet Appendix, which is available on the Oxford University Press Web Site next to the link to the final published paper online. In capital structure theories that emphasize financial flexibility, firms choose financial policies to assure reliable and cost-efficient access to capital. Foundational elements of such theories are traceable to Donaldson (1961, pp. 105–6), Modigliani and Miller (1963, p. 442), and Myers and Majluf (1984), with recent developments discussed by Denis (2011). The key property of financial flexibility-based theories of capital structure is that firms use debt for transitory financing, with debt issuance ideally followed by eventual deleveraging to restore the option to borrow. Intuitively, firms tend to issue debt rather than equity to meet funding needs because of its lower marginal (flotation and asymmetric-information) costs. Consequently, firms choose to lever up at times, but prefer to avoid permanently high leverage because of the limited capacity to issue debt to meet new funding needs. Regardless of whether firms reach a leverage level with little remaining flexibility because they issued debt or because exogenous shocks reduced equity values, they have incentives to deleverage substantially so that they again have ample unused debt capacity they could tap in the future. Although chief financial officers (CFOs) say financial flexibility is the most important element of financial policy (Graham and Harvey 2001), the evidence in the literature raises doubts that highly levered firms systematically deleverage to restore ample flexibility. Specifically, five prior studies report modest average leverage decreases over long horizons for firms with high and/or recently increased leverage (Leary and Roberts 2005; Lemmon, Roberts, and Zender 2008; Harford, Klasa, and Walcott 2009; Denis and McKeon 2012; DeAngelo and Roll 2015). The largest deleveraging among these studies is found by Denis and McKeon, who report that the cross-firm average market-leverage ratio declines by 0.133 from almost 0.550 to just above 0.400 over the seven years after large increases in leverage. None of the studies finds a systematic tendency for the proactive deleveraging from high to conservative leverage that would be expected if financial flexibility were a critical driver of capital structure. In this paper, we find a strong tendency for firms to deleverage from high to conservative leverage, as predicted by financial flexibility-based theories of capital structure. Our conclusions differ from prior studies because we examine deleveraging on a firm-by-firm longitudinal basis rather than in terms of trends in cross-firm average leverage ratios. Our main analysis assesses deleveraging from the all-time high market-leverage (ML) ratio of each nonfinancial firm with post-peak data on Compustat to its subsequent ML trough, a period that takes six years for the median firm. We find that most of these firms deleverage from historical peak to near-zero ML, while simultaneously increasing cash balances to a level that is high in absolute terms and much higher than it was at peak ML. This deleveraging largely reflects managerial decisions to repay debt and retain earnings as opposed to exogenous shocks that drive stock-market prices up and ML ratios down. The fact that this large-scale deleveraging is typically accompanied by substantial increases in cash balances indicates that most sample firms are rebuilding financial flexibility generally, and not simply reducing leverage to low levels. Viewed most broadly, our findings are consistent with theories in which firms proactively deleverage to restore ample financial flexibility, and are difficult to reconcile with the idea that most firms have materially positive leverage targets. In most of this study, we analyze deleveraging from each firm’s all-time peak ML ratio to its later trough, but we also report the results of sensitivity checks that indicate that our main results continue to hold qualitatively for firms with recently increased and/or high (but not necessarily peak) ML. Existing theories that do not emphasize financial flexibility generally do not predict that firms will seek to deleverage from all-time peak (or high) ML to a conservative capital structure. For example, in traditional tax/distress cost trade-off theories, firms have tax incentives to maintain positive leverage ratios on a permanent basis. In such theories, firms would be expected to revert to a lower, but still materially positive, level of leverage after reaching peak ML. Our finding that firms tend to deleverage proactively from a typically quite high peak ML to near-zero ML favors flexibility-based theories, which indicate that firms have incentives to deleverage to conservative capital structures. Market leverage (ML $$=$$ debt/(debt $$+$$ equity market value)) is 0.543 at the all-time peak and 0.026 at the later trough for the median among 4,476 nonfinancial firms with at least five years of post-peak data on Compustat. About one-third (33.2%) of these firms pay off all debt they had at peak ML and well over half (60.3%) deleverage to negative net debt. The scale of these deleveraging episodes is also large in terms of book leverage (debt/total assets) and the net-debt ratio ((debt minus cash)/total assets), and when the sample includes firms with as few as one year of post-peak data on Compustat. For the latter all-inclusive sample of 9,866 firms, median ML is 0.491 at the peak and 0.088 at the later trough. Large-scale deleveraging is the norm across the spectrum of peak ML ratios, including among those firms that have the very highest peak levels of ML. Figure 1 shows that, in a sorting by peak-ML deciles of firms with five or more years of post-peak data, median ML at the post-peak trough is, for every decile group, well below the median ML ratio that prevailed at peak. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Scale of deleveraging from peak market leverage (ML) to subsequent trough: Sample sorted by deciles of peak ML Market leverage (ML) is book debt divided by the sum of book debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum ML over a firm’s time in the sample. The subsequent trough is the lowest value of ML after the peak. The sample contains 4,476 nonfinancial firms that have five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. Each of the ten decile groups accordingly contains 447 or 448 firms. For deciles 1 and 2, the median firm has zero debt at the post-peak trough, and so the figure shows a positive value for the median ML at the trough after peak only for deciles 3 to 10. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Scale of deleveraging from peak market leverage (ML) to subsequent trough: Sample sorted by deciles of peak ML Market leverage (ML) is book debt divided by the sum of book debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum ML over a firm’s time in the sample. The subsequent trough is the lowest value of ML after the peak. The sample contains 4,476 nonfinancial firms that have five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. Each of the ten decile groups accordingly contains 447 or 448 firms. For deciles 1 and 2, the median firm has zero debt at the post-peak trough, and so the figure shows a positive value for the median ML at the trough after peak only for deciles 3 to 10. We also find broad-based tendencies, evident in Figure 2, for firms to deleverage to zero-debt and negative-net-debt capital structures after having reached peak ML. The latter tendency reflects that deleveraging from peak ML is typically accompanied by decisions to increase cash holdings, with the median cash-to-total assets (Cash/TA) ratio increasing from 0.050 to 0.132 over the deleveraging episode for firms with at least five years of post-peak data. Among the 33.2% of these firms that repay all debt, median Cash/TA increases from 0.110 (when peak ML is 0.287) to 0.303 (when the ML trough of 0.000 is reached), thereby driving Net Debt/TA deeply negative. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Percentage of firms that deleverage to zero debt and negative net debt capital structures: Sample sorted by deciles of peak market leverage Market leverage (ML) is book debt divided by the sum of book debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum ML over a firm’s time in the sample. The subsequent trough is the lowest value of ML after the peak. A negative-net-debt capital structure has a level of debt that is lower than the firm’s cash holdings. The sample contains 4,476 nonfinancial firms that have five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. Each of the ten decile groups accordingly contains 447 or 448 firms. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Percentage of firms that deleverage to zero debt and negative net debt capital structures: Sample sorted by deciles of peak market leverage Market leverage (ML) is book debt divided by the sum of book debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum ML over a firm’s time in the sample. The subsequent trough is the lowest value of ML after the peak. A negative-net-debt capital structure has a level of debt that is lower than the firm’s cash holdings. The sample contains 4,476 nonfinancial firms that have five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. Each of the ten decile groups accordingly contains 447 or 448 firms. Although most firms deleverage from peak ML to a conservatively levered capital structure, a nontrivial minority do not, and financial distress is an important reason why. Almost 22% of firms are delisted due to distress in the year they reach peak ML or in the next four years. Firms delisted in the four years after peak, whether due to distress or acquisition, typically have ML ratios throughout their brief post-peak periods that are well above the ML ratios at the post-peak trough of firms that are not delisted. We gauge the component of deleveraging due to managerial decisions, including the direct effects of debt repayment and share issuance as well as the effect through the payout-policy channel of decisions to retain rather than pay out earnings. Debt repayment is the single most important endogenous element of deleveraging, accounting for 71.3% of the median peak-to-trough decline in ML for firms with five or more years of post-peak data. Together, debt repayment and earnings retention account for 93.7% of the peak-to-trough decline in ML for the median firm in this sample, whereas the inclusion of share issuances raises this percentage by only 2.8% to 96.5%. We focus on the time-series impact of cumulative earnings retention on ML ratios as opposed to the cross-sectional relation between leverage and current earnings, which many prior studies analyze (see Danis, Rettl, and Whited 2014 and the studies cited therein). Earnings retention increases market equity due to internally generated capital, which directly increases the denominator of the ML ratio and reduces ML for firms that have debt outstanding. The decision to pay out a given fraction of earnings is identical to the decision to retain one minus that fraction, and this endogenous payout/retention choice is not separable from the choice of leverage. Because payout/retention decisions are endogenous to managers, it is important to consider the full influence of what we call the payout-policy channel when seeking to gauge the extent to which managers shape leverage dynamics.1 We find that earnings retention makes a nontrivial contribution to the typical deleveraging episode, with especially strong contributions when ML is high and when firms increase their debt while reducing ML. On the other hand, although the well-known negative cross-sectional relation between leverage and profitability suggests that low leverage is often generated by deleveraging through earnings retention, low leverage in our sample is rarely the result of retention alone. Debt repayment is generally much more important than retention when firms deleverage to a conservative capital structure. While debt repayment is the most important direct contributor to deleveraging, its deleveraging impact is not fully independent of the new equity capital that firms obtain through earnings retention and share-issuance proceeds. The reason is that retention and issuance proceeds provide resources that can be used to repay debt and, for our sample firms, both forms of new equity are typically large relative to the amount of debt repaid (and to post-deleveraging cash balances). The implication is that internally generated and externally supplied new equity are both economically material indirect (funding-related) contributors to the deleveraging episodes we study. Firm leverage is both highly path dependent and closely linked to cash-balance policy. We find that a basic regression model with a firm’s peak ML and ML at the prior trough has roughly twice the power to explain ML at the post-peak trough than a model with industry ML, firm profitability, and other variables traditionally used to explain leverage, all evaluated at the post-peak trough ML. The R$$^{2}$$s are 36% and 19%, respectively. The difference becomes larger still as the R$$^{2}$$ increases to 53% when the simple model with ML at the peak and prior trough is augmented by information about whether a firm has had only a short time to deleverage, for example, due to distress-related delisting soon after peak, and about the level of cash the firm has accumulated at the post-peak trough. The implication is that the key to explaining whether ML at the outcome of deleveraging is relatively high or low is knowledge of (1) how high ML was at the peak and at the prior trough, (2) whether the firm has had time to work ML back down, and (3) how much the firm has rebuilt the cash-balance component of financial flexibility. These findings on cross-firm variation in deleveraging are robust to inclusion of a variety of other explanatory variables. The most important finding in these robustness checks is that proactive increases in ML (defined as in Denis and McKeon 2012) in the year that peak leverage is reached imply a statistically significant, but economically immaterial, difference in subsequent deleveraging outcomes. Our finding that the typical firm deleverages from all-time peak to a near-zero ML ratio differs sharply from the relatively muted leverage reductions reported in prior studies that examine deleveraging over long horizons. An important reason for the large difference in our findings about the size of deleveraging is that prior studies do not use a longitudinal approach. Instead, they first calculate average leverage ratios for a set of firms at each point in (event) time, and then assess the extent of reductions (over event time) in the cross-firm average leverage ratio. DeAngelo and Roll (2015, p. 392) point out that analyzing trends in cross-sectional average leverage ratios can be misleading because large-sample averaging masks the substantial time-series volatility in the leverage of most firms that they document. For the study of deleveraging, the problem with comparisons of event-time averages is bias, not the masking of volatility. We show that such comparisons underestimate the size of the typical firm’s deleveraging when, as is true in our data, the length of deleveraging episodes differs across firms and the leverage ratios of many firms do not stabilize near their post-peak leverage troughs. We use the longitudinal approach to conduct robustness checks of our main findings when firms deleverage after their ML ratios increase markedly, but not necessarily to their all-time peak levels. In our robustness checks, we also examine deleveraging from leverage peaks measured in book-value terms and after book leverage increases markedly, but not necessarily to all-time peak levels. Our main findings are qualitatively unchanged in this robustness analysis. We discuss the implications of our findings for flexibility-based and alternative theories of financial policy in the last section of the paper. 1. Sample Construction and a First Look at Deleveraging This section describes our sampling procedure and presents evidence on year-to-year changes in leverage that motivates our longitudinal long-run perspective for studying deleveraging. 1.1 Sample construction We begin by identifying 15,703 publicly held nonfinancial firms that are in the CRSP/Compustat file at some point over 1950 to 2012. Firms in this sample are required to be incorporated in the US and to have CRSP security codes of 10 or 11 and SIC codes outside the ranges 4900 to 4949 (utilities) and 6000 to 6999 (financials). Firm-year observations are included if they have nonmissing values on Compustat of the market value of equity (common stock) and the book values of total assets and cash balances. Total debt is the sum of the book values of short- and long-term debt, and a firm-year observation is included only if at least one of these two debt components is nonmissing, with the other component set to zero if it is missing. We arrive at our baseline sample of 14,196 firms after exclusion of 962 firms with only one year of data and 545 firms that always have zero debt while on Compustat. Of the 14,196 firms in the baseline sample, 9,866 firms have data on Compustat for at least one year after reaching their historical peak market-leverage ratio. These firms are the central focus of our deleveraging analysis. For the other 4,330 firms, there are no post-peak data that would allow us to gauge the nature and extent of deleveraging. The latter firms enter our analysis in Section 4, which investigates the link between high leverage and early sample exits due to financial distress and mergers. In constructing an appropriate sample for our study, a potential problem arises because many firms have just a few years of data on Compustat, yet there is good reason to think that deleveraging often takes seven years or more (Denis and McKeon 2012). The concern is that many firms do not remain on Compustat long enough for us to be able to observe their full deleveraging, so that the deleveraging that we detect is attenuated for these firms. DeAngelo and Roll (2015) show that Compustat’s “short-sample” property can mask large leverage instability because of the inclusion of many firms with attenuated measures of leverage changes. For our study, the important concern is that any sampling rule that is tilted toward firms with a limited number of years of data can inject a downward bias into estimates of the magnitude of corporate deleveraging. This problem is potentially important in all Compustat-based samples, including our baseline sample where only 4,476 (45.4%) of the 9,866 firms with observable deleveraging episodes have five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. This potential “short-sample” bias suggests that a sample-inclusion requirement that firms have data available for an extended period may be essential for an informative analysis of deleveraging. On the other hand, such a sampling requirement has its own possible bias, namely that firms that have survived for an extended period may differ in empirically relevant ways from those with limited data available. For example, a plausible worry is that, if we require firms to have data available for an extended period, we would exclude many firms that reach a high ML ratio and are then delisted early due to financial distress. Firms that reach a high ML ratio because distress has eroded equity value likely have the extent of their deleveraging attenuated as managerial attempts to reduce ML are thwarted by the distress itself. The general concern, therefore, is that a sample restricted to firms with many years of data would be informative only about deleveraging by successful firms. It would fail to present a complete picture by materially under-representing firms whose financial troubles led them to disappear from the public arena before they had logged enough years of data to qualify for such a sample. We address these issues by analyzing subsets of the baseline sample in which firms have successively larger numbers of years of data available. We also gauge the extent of attenuated deleveraging associated with early sample exits, for example, due to delisting by distressed firms. This approach enables us to make empirically informative statements about deleveraging episodes conditional on the amount of time firms have leverage data in the public domain. This approach is appropriate when studying leverage dynamics because firm survival is necessary for researchers to have the data to gauge leverage changes over time. 1.2 Annual deleveraging propensities We focus throughout the paper on deleveraging in terms of market-leverage ratios, but we also report book leverage as well as cash and net-debt ratios when relevant. Market leverage (ML) is the book value of total debt divided by book debt plus the market value of equity. Book leverage (BL or Debt/TA) is total debt divided by total assets in book terms. The cash ratio (Cash/TA) is cash plus marketable securities divided by total assets. The net-debt ratio (Net Debt/TA) is Debt/TA minus Cash/TA. Table 1 reports annual leverage changes using our baseline sample and adding back firms with zero debt in all years. For this study, the most important regularity in the table is that, when leverage is high, it tends to decrease in the next year, with the typical reduction modest in size. Specifically, when ML, BL, and Net Debt/TA exceed 0.500, there is roughly a 60.0% probability of a leverage decrease in the next year, with each leverage measure showing a median change around $$-0.020$$ (row 1). When these leverage measures exceed 0.400 or 0.300, the probability of a leverage decrease is lower and the median changes remain negative, but are closer to zero (rows 2 and 3). The tendency for leverage to decrease is weaker at lower levels of ML, BL, and Net Debt/TA and there is a slight tendency for ML and Net Debt/TA to increase when they are currently low (rows 4 to 6). The overall pattern of year-over-year leverage changes is consistent with the weak mean reversion reported in prior studies.2 Table 1 Deleveraging propensities: Annual changes in leverage as a function of the beginning-of-year level of leverage    Market leverage  Book leverage  Net Debt/TA  Beginning-of-year ratio (ML or BL or Net Debt/TA)  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  1. 0.500 $$<$$ Leverage  57.8%  –0.022  60.4%  –0.019  61.0%  –0.022  2. 0.400 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.500  53.6%  –0.012  58.6%  –0.014  59.1%  –0.016  3. 0.300 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.400  51.4%  –0.004  56.6%  –0.010  56.2%  –0.011  4. 0.200 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.300  48.3%  0.004  53.9%  –0.005  52.7%  –0.005  5. 0.100 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.200  45.9%  0.008  51.7%  –0.002  49.2%  0.001  6. 0.000 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.100  45.9%  0.002  53.5%  –0.001  45.3%  0.009  7. All leverage $$>$$ 0.000  49.9%  0.000  55.0%  –0.003  –  –  8. All including BL $$=$$ ML $$=$$ 0.000  43.6%  0.000  47.8%  0.000  –  –  9. All Net Debt/TA $$\geqslant$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  52.5%  –0.005  10. All Net Debt/TA $$<$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  38.3%  0.029     Market leverage  Book leverage  Net Debt/TA  Beginning-of-year ratio (ML or BL or Net Debt/TA)  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  1. 0.500 $$<$$ Leverage  57.8%  –0.022  60.4%  –0.019  61.0%  –0.022  2. 0.400 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.500  53.6%  –0.012  58.6%  –0.014  59.1%  –0.016  3. 0.300 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.400  51.4%  –0.004  56.6%  –0.010  56.2%  –0.011  4. 0.200 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.300  48.3%  0.004  53.9%  –0.005  52.7%  –0.005  5. 0.100 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.200  45.9%  0.008  51.7%  –0.002  49.2%  0.001  6. 0.000 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.100  45.9%  0.002  53.5%  –0.001  45.3%  0.009  7. All leverage $$>$$ 0.000  49.9%  0.000  55.0%  –0.003  –  –  8. All including BL $$=$$ ML $$=$$ 0.000  43.6%  0.000  47.8%  0.000  –  –  9. All Net Debt/TA $$\geqslant$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  52.5%  –0.005  10. All Net Debt/TA $$<$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  38.3%  0.029  Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Book leverage (BL or Debt/TA) is the ratio of the book value of total (short-term plus long-term) debt to the book value of total assets. The net-debt ratio (NDR or Net Debt/TA) equals debt minus cash, divided by total assets. The full sample contains 14,741 nonfinancial firms with a total of 171,010 firm-year observations in the CRSP/Compustat file over 1950–2012. The number of firms here exceeds the number in the baseline sample because here we do not exclude firms that have the same ML ratio in all years (as we do in the baseline sample). The data on changes in book leverage and net-debt exclude firm-year observations with Debt/TA above 1.000. Table 1 Deleveraging propensities: Annual changes in leverage as a function of the beginning-of-year level of leverage    Market leverage  Book leverage  Net Debt/TA  Beginning-of-year ratio (ML or BL or Net Debt/TA)  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  1. 0.500 $$<$$ Leverage  57.8%  –0.022  60.4%  –0.019  61.0%  –0.022  2. 0.400 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.500  53.6%  –0.012  58.6%  –0.014  59.1%  –0.016  3. 0.300 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.400  51.4%  –0.004  56.6%  –0.010  56.2%  –0.011  4. 0.200 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.300  48.3%  0.004  53.9%  –0.005  52.7%  –0.005  5. 0.100 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.200  45.9%  0.008  51.7%  –0.002  49.2%  0.001  6. 0.000 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.100  45.9%  0.002  53.5%  –0.001  45.3%  0.009  7. All leverage $$>$$ 0.000  49.9%  0.000  55.0%  –0.003  –  –  8. All including BL $$=$$ ML $$=$$ 0.000  43.6%  0.000  47.8%  0.000  –  –  9. All Net Debt/TA $$\geqslant$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  52.5%  –0.005  10. All Net Debt/TA $$<$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  38.3%  0.029     Market leverage  Book leverage  Net Debt/TA  Beginning-of-year ratio (ML or BL or Net Debt/TA)  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  Probability of annual decrease  Median annual change  1. 0.500 $$<$$ Leverage  57.8%  –0.022  60.4%  –0.019  61.0%  –0.022  2. 0.400 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.500  53.6%  –0.012  58.6%  –0.014  59.1%  –0.016  3. 0.300 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.400  51.4%  –0.004  56.6%  –0.010  56.2%  –0.011  4. 0.200 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.300  48.3%  0.004  53.9%  –0.005  52.7%  –0.005  5. 0.100 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.200  45.9%  0.008  51.7%  –0.002  49.2%  0.001  6. 0.000 $$<$$ Leverage $$\leqslant$$ 0.100  45.9%  0.002  53.5%  –0.001  45.3%  0.009  7. All leverage $$>$$ 0.000  49.9%  0.000  55.0%  –0.003  –  –  8. All including BL $$=$$ ML $$=$$ 0.000  43.6%  0.000  47.8%  0.000  –  –  9. All Net Debt/TA $$\geqslant$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  52.5%  –0.005  10. All Net Debt/TA $$<$$ 0.000  –  –  –  –  38.3%  0.029  Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Book leverage (BL or Debt/TA) is the ratio of the book value of total (short-term plus long-term) debt to the book value of total assets. The net-debt ratio (NDR or Net Debt/TA) equals debt minus cash, divided by total assets. The full sample contains 14,741 nonfinancial firms with a total of 171,010 firm-year observations in the CRSP/Compustat file over 1950–2012. The number of firms here exceeds the number in the baseline sample because here we do not exclude firms that have the same ML ratio in all years (as we do in the baseline sample). The data on changes in book leverage and net-debt exclude firm-year observations with Debt/TA above 1.000. 1.3 Long-horizon longitudinal analysis of deleveraging These findings suggest that large-scale deleveraging tends to play out in small-to-moderate steps over multiyear horizons. This in turn suggests—and Section 2 strongly confirms—that focusing on year-to-year leverage changes tends to miss their cumulative effect at firms that are going through material deleveraging, and therefore often fails to identify such episodes. We accordingly adopt a long-horizon longitudinal approach that, for each sample firm, analyzes deleveraging from all-time peak ML to subsequent trough. We have a total of 14,196 observations, one for each firm in the baseline sample. We focus primarily on the 9,866 firms that have post-peak data available on Compustat. In Section 4’s analysis of attenuated deleveraging, we also consider the 4,330 firms that have no post-peak data, for example, due to distress-related delisting in the peak year. This broad-based sample includes (a) firms that attain peak ML proactively, (b) firms that attain peak ML as a result of exogenous shocks that decrease the market value of equity, and (c) all cases, regardless of the size of the ML increase in the year a firm reaches peak. Conditions (a) and (b) imply that our sample contains many observations that are not included in the sample of Denis and McKeon (2012), who study deleveraging by firms that increase leverage by large amounts to a high (but not necessarily peak) level. At the same time, our sample includes 3,000 firms whose movements to peak ML satisfy their definition of a proactive ML increase. Sections 5 and 6 analyze the difference in deleveraging outcomes when peak is attained because managers chose to lever up rather than because exogenous shocks increase ML. While the longitudinal approach reveals substantial heterogeneity across firms in the time between all-time peak ML and subsequent trough, we also find that a large majority of these deleveraging episodes play out over a relatively compact period of a decade or less. The time from peak to trough is 10 years or less for 90.2% of the 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data available on Compustat and for 78.4% of the 4,476 firms with at least five years of post-peak data available. 2. Deleveraging and the Restoration of Financial Flexibility Table 2 documents that deleveraging from all-time peak market leverage (ML) to subsequent ML trough transforms the typical firm from a capital structure with far more debt than cash to one with ample financial flexibility in terms of both low leverage and much higher cash balances. The first column of the table reports results for our all-inclusive baseline sample, that is, for all 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data on Compustat. Moving sequentially from left to right, the remaining columns report results for subsets of the baseline sample with firms that have a minimum of two years of post-peak data (second column) up to a minimum of ten years of post-peak data on Compustat (far-right column). Table 2 Deleveraging episodes: Market leverage (ML) and related financial ratios at the ML peak and subsequent ML trough, with the baseline sample partitioned by the minimum number of years of post-peak data available on Compustat    Minimum number of years of data available after the market leverage (ML) peak:     $$\geqslant 1$$  $$\geqslant 2$$  $$\geqslant 3$$  $$\geqslant 4$$  $$\geqslant 5$$  $$\geqslant 6$$  $$\geqslant 7$$  $$\geqslant 8$$  $$\geqslant 9$$  $$\geqslant 10$$  1. Median ML at peak  0.491  0.509  0.526  0.535  0.543  0.552  0.557  0.562  0.571  0.570  2. Median ML at trough after peak  0.088  0.062  0.048  0.040  0.026  0.023  0.020  0.018  0.017  0.016   3. Percentage of firms that have                                $$\qquad$$ zero debt at ML trough after peak  22.8%  26.7%  28.9%  30.5%  33.2%  34.0%  34.7%  35.3%  35.8%  36.0%  $$\qquad$$ negative net debt at ML trough after peak  49.1%  53.6%  55.9%  57.6%  60.3%  61.4%  62.4%  63.4%  63.8%  64.6%  4. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.055  0.054  0.052  0.050  0.049  0.048  0.047  0.047  0.046  5. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.120  0.126  0.130  0.132  0.134  0.136  0.136  0.136  0.137  6. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.286  0.288  0.291  0.296  0.299  0.302  0.304  0.310  0.310  7. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  –0.023  –0.040  –0.052  –0.067  –0.072  –0.076  –0.079  –0.081  –0.084  8. Median book leverage (BL) at ML peak  0.354  0.354  0.356  0.358  0.359  0.360  0.361  0.362  0.365  0.363  9. Median BL at post-peak ML trough  0.121  0.090  0.076  0.063  0.044  0.036  0.032  0.028  0.026  0.024  10. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  –0.244  –0.305  –0.339  –0.365  –0.395  –0.414  –0.427  –0.438  –0.451  –0.462  11. Median years from ML peak to trough  2  3  4  5  6  6  7  8  9  9  12. Number of firms  9,866  7,801  6,529  5,547  4,476  3,954  3,467  3,075  2,756  2,462     Minimum number of years of data available after the market leverage (ML) peak:     $$\geqslant 1$$  $$\geqslant 2$$  $$\geqslant 3$$  $$\geqslant 4$$  $$\geqslant 5$$  $$\geqslant 6$$  $$\geqslant 7$$  $$\geqslant 8$$  $$\geqslant 9$$  $$\geqslant 10$$  1. Median ML at peak  0.491  0.509  0.526  0.535  0.543  0.552  0.557  0.562  0.571  0.570  2. Median ML at trough after peak  0.088  0.062  0.048  0.040  0.026  0.023  0.020  0.018  0.017  0.016   3. Percentage of firms that have                                $$\qquad$$ zero debt at ML trough after peak  22.8%  26.7%  28.9%  30.5%  33.2%  34.0%  34.7%  35.3%  35.8%  36.0%  $$\qquad$$ negative net debt at ML trough after peak  49.1%  53.6%  55.9%  57.6%  60.3%  61.4%  62.4%  63.4%  63.8%  64.6%  4. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.055  0.054  0.052  0.050  0.049  0.048  0.047  0.047  0.046  5. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.120  0.126  0.130  0.132  0.134  0.136  0.136  0.136  0.137  6. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.286  0.288  0.291  0.296  0.299  0.302  0.304  0.310  0.310  7. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  –0.023  –0.040  –0.052  –0.067  –0.072  –0.076  –0.079  –0.081  –0.084  8. Median book leverage (BL) at ML peak  0.354  0.354  0.356  0.358  0.359  0.360  0.361  0.362  0.365  0.363  9. Median BL at post-peak ML trough  0.121  0.090  0.076  0.063  0.044  0.036  0.032  0.028  0.026  0.024  10. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  –0.244  –0.305  –0.339  –0.365  –0.395  –0.414  –0.427  –0.438  –0.451  –0.462  11. Median years from ML peak to trough  2  3  4  5  6  6  7  8  9  9  12. Number of firms  9,866  7,801  6,529  5,547  4,476  3,954  3,467  3,075  2,756  2,462  Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The trough after peak is the lowest value of a firm’s ML that comes subsequent to its peak. When a firm has multiple post-peak years with the same minimum value of ML, we take the earliest such year to be the date of the post-peak trough. Book leverage (BL) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the book value of total assets. Net Debt/TA is the book value of debt minus the sum of cash and marketable securities, divided by total assets. Results for the full baseline sample are in the first column. Successive columns report results for subsets of the baseline sample that exclude firms with a small number of years of post-peak data available on Compustat. For example, the column labeled “$$\geqslant 2$$” excludes the 2,065 firms (9,866 minus 7,801, per row 12) that have exactly one year of post-peak data available. Table 2 Deleveraging episodes: Market leverage (ML) and related financial ratios at the ML peak and subsequent ML trough, with the baseline sample partitioned by the minimum number of years of post-peak data available on Compustat    Minimum number of years of data available after the market leverage (ML) peak:     $$\geqslant 1$$  $$\geqslant 2$$  $$\geqslant 3$$  $$\geqslant 4$$  $$\geqslant 5$$  $$\geqslant 6$$  $$\geqslant 7$$  $$\geqslant 8$$  $$\geqslant 9$$  $$\geqslant 10$$  1. Median ML at peak  0.491  0.509  0.526  0.535  0.543  0.552  0.557  0.562  0.571  0.570  2. Median ML at trough after peak  0.088  0.062  0.048  0.040  0.026  0.023  0.020  0.018  0.017  0.016   3. Percentage of firms that have                                $$\qquad$$ zero debt at ML trough after peak  22.8%  26.7%  28.9%  30.5%  33.2%  34.0%  34.7%  35.3%  35.8%  36.0%  $$\qquad$$ negative net debt at ML trough after peak  49.1%  53.6%  55.9%  57.6%  60.3%  61.4%  62.4%  63.4%  63.8%  64.6%  4. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.055  0.054  0.052  0.050  0.049  0.048  0.047  0.047  0.046  5. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.120  0.126  0.130  0.132  0.134  0.136  0.136  0.136  0.137  6. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.286  0.288  0.291  0.296  0.299  0.302  0.304  0.310  0.310  7. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  –0.023  –0.040  –0.052  –0.067  –0.072  –0.076  –0.079  –0.081  –0.084  8. Median book leverage (BL) at ML peak  0.354  0.354  0.356  0.358  0.359  0.360  0.361  0.362  0.365  0.363  9. Median BL at post-peak ML trough  0.121  0.090  0.076  0.063  0.044  0.036  0.032  0.028  0.026  0.024  10. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  –0.244  –0.305  –0.339  –0.365  –0.395  –0.414  –0.427  –0.438  –0.451  –0.462  11. Median years from ML peak to trough  2  3  4  5  6  6  7  8  9  9  12. Number of firms  9,866  7,801  6,529  5,547  4,476  3,954  3,467  3,075  2,756  2,462     Minimum number of years of data available after the market leverage (ML) peak:     $$\geqslant 1$$  $$\geqslant 2$$  $$\geqslant 3$$  $$\geqslant 4$$  $$\geqslant 5$$  $$\geqslant 6$$  $$\geqslant 7$$  $$\geqslant 8$$  $$\geqslant 9$$  $$\geqslant 10$$  1. Median ML at peak  0.491  0.509  0.526  0.535  0.543  0.552  0.557  0.562  0.571  0.570  2. Median ML at trough after peak  0.088  0.062  0.048  0.040  0.026  0.023  0.020  0.018  0.017  0.016   3. Percentage of firms that have                                $$\qquad$$ zero debt at ML trough after peak  22.8%  26.7%  28.9%  30.5%  33.2%  34.0%  34.7%  35.3%  35.8%  36.0%  $$\qquad$$ negative net debt at ML trough after peak  49.1%  53.6%  55.9%  57.6%  60.3%  61.4%  62.4%  63.4%  63.8%  64.6%  4. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.055  0.054  0.052  0.050  0.049  0.048  0.047  0.047  0.046  5. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.120  0.126  0.130  0.132  0.134  0.136  0.136  0.136  0.137  6. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.286  0.288  0.291  0.296  0.299  0.302  0.304  0.310  0.310  7. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  –0.023  –0.040  –0.052  –0.067  –0.072  –0.076  –0.079  –0.081  –0.084  8. Median book leverage (BL) at ML peak  0.354  0.354  0.356  0.358  0.359  0.360  0.361  0.362  0.365  0.363  9. Median BL at post-peak ML trough  0.121  0.090  0.076  0.063  0.044  0.036  0.032  0.028  0.026  0.024  10. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  –0.244  –0.305  –0.339  –0.365  –0.395  –0.414  –0.427  –0.438  –0.451  –0.462  11. Median years from ML peak to trough  2  3  4  5  6  6  7  8  9  9  12. Number of firms  9,866  7,801  6,529  5,547  4,476  3,954  3,467  3,075  2,756  2,462  Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The trough after peak is the lowest value of a firm’s ML that comes subsequent to its peak. When a firm has multiple post-peak years with the same minimum value of ML, we take the earliest such year to be the date of the post-peak trough. Book leverage (BL) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the book value of total assets. Net Debt/TA is the book value of debt minus the sum of cash and marketable securities, divided by total assets. Results for the full baseline sample are in the first column. Successive columns report results for subsets of the baseline sample that exclude firms with a small number of years of post-peak data available on Compustat. For example, the column labeled “$$\geqslant 2$$” excludes the 2,065 firms (9,866 minus 7,801, per row 12) that have exactly one year of post-peak data available. Scanning across the columns in Table 2 reveals that large decreases in ML and substantial increases in Cash/TA ratios characterize the baseline sample and all subsets thereof, with the typical scale of deleveraging greater when the sample excludes firms with just a few years of post-peak data. Median ML is 0.543 at the peak and 0.026 at the later trough for the sample with at least five years of post-peak data, whereas the comparable figures are 0.491 and 0.088 for the baseline sample, which includes many firms with few years of post-peak data available (rows 1 and 2). Remarkably, 33.2% of the former firms and 22.8% of the firms in the baseline sample pay off all debt, whereas 60.3% and 49.1% of firms in the two samples deleverage to a negative net debt capital structure (row 3). The pervasive deleveraging to a negative net debt capital structure reflects the fact that firms typically increase cash balances by a nontrivial amount while deleveraging from peak ML. Among firms with five or more years of post-peak data, the median Cash/TA ratio almost triples from 0.050 at the ML peak to 0.132 at the later trough (rows 4 and 5). In the baseline sample, the analogous figures are 0.056 and 0.109 for a near doubling of Cash/TA. For all samples in the columns of Table 2, a comparison of peak and trough median ML (rows 1 and 2) with median Cash/TA (rows 4 and 5) is strongly suggestive of a counter-cyclical relation between leverage and cash balances at the individual-firm level. As with market leverage, the book leverage (BL) and Net Debt/TA ratios in Table 2 also indicate that our sample firms typically deleverage to conservative capital structures (rows 7 and 9). The median peak-to-trough change in ML is $$-0.244$$ for the baseline sample and $$-0.395$$ for firms with five or more years of post-peak data (row 10). The difference reflects the fact that the baseline sample contains quite a few firms that are delisted shortly after peak either because of financial distress or because they are acquired soon after attaining peak (see Section 4). Since these firms have little or no time to deleverage, their inclusion in the baseline sample naturally dampens the median decline in ML relative to the median among firms that have a minimum of five years to deleverage. Among firms with five or more years of post-peak data, the median deleveraging takes six years (row 11, Table 2), which is near the seven-year deleveraging horizon analyzed by Denis and McKeon (2012). In contrast, for our baseline sample, the median time from ML peak to trough is only two years. This brief deleveraging time is quite misleading because it is mechanically driven by the fact that the baseline sample has many firms with just a few years of post-peak data. More than half (54.6%) of firms in the baseline sample have four or fewer years of post-peak data, while about one-third (33.8%) have one or two years of data (row 12). It is therefore impossible for the median deleveraging time to be longer than four years, and difficult for it to be longer than two years. A closely related important regularity, evident in Figure 3, is that the scale of deleveraging is more muted among firms with just a few years of post-peak data. Panel A of the figure plots ML medians at the peak and the later trough (previously reported in Table 2) juxtaposed for each sample against the ML median at the trough that prevailed before the peak. Panel B of the figure reports ML medians at the pre-peak trough, the peak, and the post-peak trough for the incremental sets of firms that are excluded from the baseline sample as we move step by step to the right in Table 2 and in panel A of Figure 3, that is, for firms with exactly one year of post-peak data, exactly two years of post-peak data, and so on. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Median market leverage (ML) at the peak and at the troughs before and after the peak: Sample sorted by the number of years of post-peak data on Compustat Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The ML trough after (before) peak is the lowest ML value that comes after (before) the ML peak. Results for the full baseline sample are reported at the far left in panel A. The baseline sample has 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data on Compustat. Sample sizes for the other subsample entries in panel A are in row 13 of Table 2. Sample sizes for panel B can be calculated by taking differences in the row 13 entries for adjacent columns in Table 2. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Median market leverage (ML) at the peak and at the troughs before and after the peak: Sample sorted by the number of years of post-peak data on Compustat Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The ML trough after (before) peak is the lowest ML value that comes after (before) the ML peak. Results for the full baseline sample are reported at the far left in panel A. The baseline sample has 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data on Compustat. Sample sizes for the other subsample entries in panel A are in row 13 of Table 2. Sample sizes for panel B can be calculated by taking differences in the row 13 entries for adjacent columns in Table 2. Panel B of Figure 3 indicates that firms with exactly one year of post-peak data reduce leverage to a median ML above 0.200, while firms with exactly two, three, or four years of data deleverage to median ML ratios above 0.100. For each of these short-horizon samples, median ML at the post-peak trough is far higher than the median ML that had prevailed at the trough before the peak. In sharp contrast, among firms with five or more years of data, the median ML ratios at the post-peak trough are well below 0.100 and close to the median ML that prevailed at the pre-peak trough. Why do firms with just a few years of data tend to deleverage by smaller amounts than firms with more years of post-peak data on Compustat? One reason is that deleveraging typically plays out over multiple years, not through a one-time rebalancing of capital structure. Consequently, for many firms that have just a few years of post-peak data on Compustat, we can observe only a truncated portion of the full deleveraging. Another reason is that quite a few firms are delisted due to financial distress soon after reaching peak ML and, as prior research has documented, distressed firms commonly have difficulties restructuring their finances to obtain greater breathing room. We return to this issue in Section 4. Finally, we note that for the baseline sample and all subsamples in panel A of Figure 3, median ML at the trough before the peak is close to zero, just as it is at the trough after the peak. Symmetrically, median Cash/TA ratios are considerably higher at both troughs than at peak ML (panel A of Figure 4). More than half of the firms in the baseline sample have negative net debt at the trough before the peak, as do roughly half of the firms in all subsamples (panel B of Figure 4). In short, substantial financial flexibility—low ML coupled with high Cash/TA—is the norm at the ML troughs both before and after peak ML. Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Median cash-balance ratios and incidence of negative net debt capital structures at the troughs before and after peak market leverage Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The ML trough after (before) peak is the lowest ML value that comes after (before) the ML peak. Cash/TA is the ratio of cash plus marketable securities to total assets. A negative net debt capital structure has less debt than cash plus marketable securities. The baseline sample has 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data on Compustat. Results for the baseline sample are presented in the first set of columns in both panels. Sample sizes for the other subsample entries in both panels are in row 13 of Table 2. Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Median cash-balance ratios and incidence of negative net debt capital structures at the troughs before and after peak market leverage Market leverage (ML) is the ratio of the book value of debt to the sum of the book value of debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum value of ML over a firm’s entire time in the sample. The ML trough after (before) peak is the lowest ML value that comes after (before) the ML peak. Cash/TA is the ratio of cash plus marketable securities to total assets. A negative net debt capital structure has less debt than cash plus marketable securities. The baseline sample has 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data on Compustat. Results for the baseline sample are presented in the first set of columns in both panels. Sample sizes for the other subsample entries in both panels are in row 13 of Table 2. 3. Economic Significance of Decisions that Reduce Leverage The evidence in this section establishes that decisions to repay debt and retain earnings account for a remarkably large portion of observed peak-to-trough declines in ML for our sample firms. Although retention makes an important direct contribution to deleveraging by increasing the denominator of the ML ratio, the resultant impact on ML is typically much smaller than that of debt repayment, and its influence is far from uniform. Most notably, the direct impact of retention on ML is especially important when ML is high and when firms take on more debt while reducing ML. Moreover, sample firms rarely deleverage from peak to near-zero ML simply by retaining earnings. Decisions to issue shares typically make a small direct contribution to reducing ML ratios in the deleveraging episodes we study. However, the dollar amounts of share issuance and retention are both typically large relative to the amount of debt repaid (and to cash balances), which indicates that new equity capital makes a large indirect (funding-related) contribution to deleveraging. The evidence in this section also shows that the rate and scale of deleveraging are often dampened by managerial decisions to accumulate markedly larger cash balances. The fact that managers typically increase cash holdings by material amounts while deleveraging indicates they are concerned with building financial flexibility generally, and are not simply focused on reducing ML. At the same time, the data show that decisions to increase dividends often reduce the size and rate of ML decreases at our sample firms, while also attenuating the cash-balance build up that typically accompanies deleveraging. The latter findings indicate that managerial attempts to rebuild financial flexibility through deleveraging and cash build up are often muted as managers simultaneously take actions to meet the conflicting objective of delivering increased payouts to shareholders. 3.1 Decisions to repay debt, retain earnings, and issue shares Table 3 gauges the size of the contributions of debt repayment, earnings retention, and share issuance decisions to the deleveraging episodes for the sample of 4,476 firms that have five or more years of post-peak data (panel A) and for the baseline sample of 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data (panel B). We focus the discussion on the panel A results because they give a more accurate picture of the nature of complete deleveraging episodes. The reason is that the baseline sample includes many firms with just a few years of data and so the observable deleveraging by these firms is often incomplete. (We analyze attenuated deleveraging in Section 4.) The main difference between panels A and B is that the results in panel B show economically material, but somewhat smaller impacts on deleveraging of managers’ decisions to repay debt, retain earnings, and issue shares (compare rows 9 to 11). Table 3 Managerial actions that reduce leverage: Debt repayment, earnings retention, and share issuance    All firms  Repay all debt  Repay some debt  Increase debt  A. Sample of firms with at least five years of data after the ML peak  1. Median market leverage (ML) at peak  0.543  0.287  0.612  0.652  2. Median ML at subsequent trough  0.026  0.000  0.078  0.169  3. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.050  0.110  0.043  0.040  4. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.132  0.303  0.097  0.052  5. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.296  0.136  0.342  0.344  6. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  $$-$$0.067  $$-$$0.303  0.008  0.173  7. Managerial actions during deleveraging:              $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in debt  $$-$$80.2%  $$-$$100.0%  $$-$$64.0%  61.0%  $$\qquad$$ Median [earnings retention $$\div$$ debt plus equity value at peak]  0.243  0.084  0.243  0.790  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in shares outstanding  15.2%  11.6%  12.1%  30.5%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with [asset sales $$\div$$ debt] $$>$$ 0.500  27.2%  28.8%  12.3%  12.9%  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in cash balances  169.5%  169.3%  143.1%  255.2%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms that cut dividends  33.2%  17.7%  38.5%  47.4%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with no interim debt increases  32.1%  56.3%  27.3%  0.4%  8. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  $$-$$0.395  $$-$$0.287  $$-$$0.436  $$-$$0.395  9. Median percentage of decline in ML due to              $$\qquad$$ Debt repayment (DR)  71.3%  100.0%  48.5%  0.0%  $$\qquad$$ DR and earnings retention (ER)  93.7%  100.0%  82.4%  36.6%  $$\qquad$$ DR, ER, and net share issuance (SI)  96.5%  100.0%  90.4%  64.4%  10. Percentage of firms for which              $$\qquad$$ 100.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  38.3%  100.0%  15.3%  3.2%  $$\qquad$$$$\geqslant 50.0\%$$ of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  88.0%  100.0%  89.4%  65.3%  $$\qquad$$$$<$$ 10.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  2.8%  0.0%  1.8%  9.8%  11. Adjusted R$$^{2}$$: Percentage of cross-firm variation in              $$\quad$$ deleveraging explained by DR, ER, and SI  81%  100%  76%  68%  12. Median ML if Cash/TA increase were used to repay debt  0.000  0.000  0.039  0.147  13. Number of firms  4,476  1,488  2,186  802  14. Percentage of firms in sample  100.0%  33.2%  48.8%  17.9%  B. Sample of firms with at least one year of data after the ML peak  1. Median market leverage (ML) at peak  0.491  0.218  0.544  0.579  2. Median ML at subsequent trough  0.088  0.000  0.142  0.242  3. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.150  0.048  0.042  4. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.309  0.086  0.052  5. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.059  0.317  0.333  6. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  $$-$$0.309  0.064  0.243  7. Managerial actions during deleveraging:              $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in debt  $$-$$52.7%  $$-$$100.0%  $$-$$48.4%  29.1%  $$\qquad$$ Median [earnings retention $$\div$$ debt plus equity value at peak]  0.052  0.014  0.049  0.109  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in shares outstanding  5.1%  7.5%  3.6%  9.8%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with [asset sales $$\div$$ debt] $$>$$ 0.500  17.6%  26.4%  13.4%  20.1%  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in cash balances  52.4%  84.6%  36.5%  77.6%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms that cut dividends  26.1%  14.8%  28.3%  33.0%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with no interim debt increases  52.2%  68.5%  61.7%  2.2%  8. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  $$-$$0.244  $$-$$0.218  $$-$$0.258  $$-$$0.220  9. Median percentage of decline in ML due to              $$\qquad$$ Debt repayment (DR)  57.9%  100.0%  52.8%  0.0%  $$\qquad$$ DR and earnings retention (ER)  83.9%  100.0%  78.1%  4.1%  $$\qquad$$ DR, ER, and net share issuance (SI)  90.9%  100.0%  86.9%  45.0%  10. Percentage of firms for which              $$\qquad$$ 100.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  36.0%  100.0%  23.6%  6.4%  $$\qquad$$$$\geqslant 50.0\%$$ of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  78.1%  100.0%  80.9%  45.8%  $$\qquad$$$$<$$ 10.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  7.3%  0.0%  3.3%  28.0%  11. Adjusted R$$^{\mathrm{2}}$$: Percentage of cross-firm variation in              $$\qquad$$ deleveraging explained by DR, ER, and SI  81%  100%  77%  72%  12. Median ML if Cash/TA increase were used to repay debt  0.054  0.000  0.105  0.222  13. Number of firms  9,866  2,252  5,782  1,832  14. Percentage of firms in sample  100.0%  22.8%  58.6%  18.6%     All firms  Repay all debt  Repay some debt  Increase debt  A. Sample of firms with at least five years of data after the ML peak  1. Median market leverage (ML) at peak  0.543  0.287  0.612  0.652  2. Median ML at subsequent trough  0.026  0.000  0.078  0.169  3. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.050  0.110  0.043  0.040  4. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.132  0.303  0.097  0.052  5. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.296  0.136  0.342  0.344  6. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  $$-$$0.067  $$-$$0.303  0.008  0.173  7. Managerial actions during deleveraging:              $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in debt  $$-$$80.2%  $$-$$100.0%  $$-$$64.0%  61.0%  $$\qquad$$ Median [earnings retention $$\div$$ debt plus equity value at peak]  0.243  0.084  0.243  0.790  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in shares outstanding  15.2%  11.6%  12.1%  30.5%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with [asset sales $$\div$$ debt] $$>$$ 0.500  27.2%  28.8%  12.3%  12.9%  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in cash balances  169.5%  169.3%  143.1%  255.2%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms that cut dividends  33.2%  17.7%  38.5%  47.4%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with no interim debt increases  32.1%  56.3%  27.3%  0.4%  8. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  $$-$$0.395  $$-$$0.287  $$-$$0.436  $$-$$0.395  9. Median percentage of decline in ML due to              $$\qquad$$ Debt repayment (DR)  71.3%  100.0%  48.5%  0.0%  $$\qquad$$ DR and earnings retention (ER)  93.7%  100.0%  82.4%  36.6%  $$\qquad$$ DR, ER, and net share issuance (SI)  96.5%  100.0%  90.4%  64.4%  10. Percentage of firms for which              $$\qquad$$ 100.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  38.3%  100.0%  15.3%  3.2%  $$\qquad$$$$\geqslant 50.0\%$$ of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  88.0%  100.0%  89.4%  65.3%  $$\qquad$$$$<$$ 10.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  2.8%  0.0%  1.8%  9.8%  11. Adjusted R$$^{2}$$: Percentage of cross-firm variation in              $$\quad$$ deleveraging explained by DR, ER, and SI  81%  100%  76%  68%  12. Median ML if Cash/TA increase were used to repay debt  0.000  0.000  0.039  0.147  13. Number of firms  4,476  1,488  2,186  802  14. Percentage of firms in sample  100.0%  33.2%  48.8%  17.9%  B. Sample of firms with at least one year of data after the ML peak  1. Median market leverage (ML) at peak  0.491  0.218  0.544  0.579  2. Median ML at subsequent trough  0.088  0.000  0.142  0.242  3. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.056  0.150  0.048  0.042  4. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.109  0.309  0.086  0.052  5. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.283  0.059  0.317  0.333  6. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.007  $$-$$0.309  0.064  0.243  7. Managerial actions during deleveraging:              $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in debt  $$-$$52.7%  $$-$$100.0%  $$-$$48.4%  29.1%  $$\qquad$$ Median [earnings retention $$\div$$ debt plus equity value at peak]  0.052  0.014  0.049  0.109  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in shares outstanding  5.1%  7.5%  3.6%  9.8%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with [asset sales $$\div$$ debt] $$>$$ 0.500  17.6%  26.4%  13.4%  20.1%  $$\qquad$$ Median percentage change in cash balances  52.4%  84.6%  36.5%  77.6%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms that cut dividends  26.1%  14.8%  28.3%  33.0%  $$\qquad$$ Percentage of firms with no interim debt increases  52.2%  68.5%  61.7%  2.2%  8. Median peak-to-trough decline in ML  $$-$$0.244  $$-$$0.218  $$-$$0.258  $$-$$0.220  9. Median percentage of decline in ML due to              $$\qquad$$ Debt repayment (DR)  57.9%  100.0%  52.8%  0.0%  $$\qquad$$ DR and earnings retention (ER)  83.9%  100.0%  78.1%  4.1%  $$\qquad$$ DR, ER, and net share issuance (SI)  90.9%  100.0%  86.9%  45.0%  10. Percentage of firms for which              $$\qquad$$ 100.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  36.0%  100.0%  23.6%  6.4%  $$\qquad$$$$\geqslant 50.0\%$$ of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  78.1%  100.0%  80.9%  45.8%  $$\qquad$$$$<$$ 10.0% of ML decline is due to DR, ER, and SI  7.3%  0.0%  3.3%  28.0%  11. Adjusted R$$^{\mathrm{2}}$$: Percentage of cross-firm variation in              $$\qquad$$ deleveraging explained by DR, ER, and SI  81%  100%  77%  72%  12. Median ML if Cash/TA increase were used to repay debt  0.054  0.000  0.105  0.222  13. Number of firms  9,866  2,252  5,782  1,832  14. Percentage of firms in sample  100.0%  22.8%  58.6%  18.6%  Market leverage (ML) is book debt divided by the sum of book debt and the market value of equity. Peak leverage is the maximum ML over a firm’s time in the sample. The subsequent trough is the lowest value of ML after the peak. Panel A contains 4,476 firms with five or more years of post-peak data on Compustat. Panel B contains the 9,866 firms with at least one year of post-peak data. In row 9 of both panels, we report for the median firm the percentage of the decline in ML (from peak to trough) that would hypothetically result if the only things that changed were the managerial actions specified in the first column; see the appendix for calculation details. In the far-right column, virtually all firms increased debt over the period from peak to trough, while a few firms (0.4% in panel A and 2.2% in panel B) did not decrease debt while deleveraging. Table 3 Managerial actions that reduce leverage: Debt repayment, earnings retention, and share issuance    All firms  Repay all debt  Repay some debt  Increase debt  A. Sample of firms with at least five years of data after the ML peak  1. Median market leverage (ML) at peak  0.543  0.287  0.612  0.652  2. Median ML at subsequent trough  0.026  0.000  0.078  0.169  3. Median Cash/TA at ML peak  0.050  0.110  0.043  0.040  4. Median Cash/TA at post-peak ML trough  0.132  0.303  0.097  0.052  5. Median Net Debt/TA at ML peak  0.296  0.136  0.342  0.344  6. Median Net Debt/TA at post-peak ML trough  $$-$$0.067  $$-$$0.303  0.008&