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How Firms Choose Between Sources of Financial Capital

How Firms Choose between Sources of Financial Capital

There are clear patterns in how businesses raise financial capital. These patterns can be explained in terms of imperfect information, which as discussed in Information, Risk, and Insurance, is a situation where buyers and sellers in a market do not both have full and equal information. Those who are actually running a firm will almost always have more information about whether the firm is likely to earn profits in the future than outside investors who provide financial capital.

Any young startup firm is a risk; indeed, some startup firms are only a little more than an idea on paper. The firm’s founders inevitably have better information about how hard they are willing to work, and whether the firm is likely to succeed, than anyone else. When the founders put their own money into the firm, they demonstrate a belief in its prospects. At this early stage, angel investors and venture capitalists try to overcome the imperfect information, at least in part, by knowing the managers and their business plan personally and by giving them advice.

Accurate information is sometimes not available because corporate governance, the name economists give to the institutions that are supposed to watch over top executives, fails, as the following Clear It Up feature on Lehman Brothers shows.

How did lack of corporate governance lead to the Lehman Brothers failure?

In 2008, Lehman Brothers was the fourth largest U.S. investment bank, with 25,000 employees. The firm had been in business for 164 years. On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. There are many causes of the Lehman Brothers failure. One area of apparent failure was the lack of oversight by the Board of Directors to keep managers from undertaking excessive risk. Part of the oversight failure, according to Tim Geithner’s April 10, 2010, testimony to Congress, can be attributed to the Executive Compensation Committee’s emphasis on short-term gains without enough consideration of the risks. In addition, according to the court examiner’s report, the Lehman Brother’s Board of Directors paid too little attention to the details of the operations of Lehman Brothers and also had limited financial service experience.

The board of directors, elected by the shareholders, is supposed to be the first line of corporate governance and oversight for top executives. A second institution of corporate governance is the auditing firm hired to go over the financial records of the company and certify that everything looks reasonable. A third institution of corporate governance is outside investors, especially large shareholders like those who invest large mutual funds or pension funds. In the case of Lehman Brothers, corporate governance failed to provide investors with accurate financial information about the firm’s operations.

As a firm becomes at least somewhat established and its strategy appears likely to lead to profits in the near future, knowing the individual managers and their business plans on a personal basis becomes less important, because information has become more widely available regarding the company’s products, revenues, costs, and profits. As a result, other outside investors who do not know the managers personally, like bondholders and shareholders, are more willing to provide financial capital to the firm.

At this point, a firm must often choose how to access financial capital. It may choose to borrow from a bank, issue bonds, or issue stock. The great disadvantage of borrowing money from a bank or issuing bonds is that the firm commits to scheduled interest payments, whether or not it has sufficient income. The great advantage of borrowing money is that the firm maintains control of its operations and is not subject to shareholders. Issuing stock involves selling off ownership of the company to the public and becoming responsible to a board of directors and the shareholders.

The benefit of issuing stock is that a small and growing firm increases its visibility in the financial markets and can access large amounts of financial capital for expansion, without worrying about paying this money back. If the firm is successful and profitable, the board of directors will need to decide upon a dividend payout or how to reinvest profits to further grow the company. Issuing and placing stock is expensive, requires the expertise of investment bankers and attorneys, and entails compliance with reporting requirements to shareholders and government agencies, such as the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

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