Operating Leverage

Bradford Toney
Updated At


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What is Operating Leverage?

Operating leverage is a financial concept that measures the proportion of fixed costs in a company’s cost structure and how it affects the company's profitability as sales volume changes. It is an important metric for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) because it helps them understand how sensitive their profits are to changes in sales volume.

Fixed costs are expenses that do not change with the level of output, such as rent, salaries of permanent staff, or depreciation of equipment. In contrast, variable costs fluctuate with the level of production or sales, like raw materials or sales commissions.

When a business has high operating leverage, a small change in sales can lead to a large change in operating income due to the presence of high fixed costs. Conversely, a business with low operating leverage, where variable costs dominate, will experience smaller changes in operating income with changes in sales volume.

To break this down further:

  • High operating leverage implies that a company needs to cover a significant amount of fixed costs regardless of its sales volume. Once these costs are covered, most additional revenue contributes directly to profit, which can lead to higher margins.
  • Low operating leverage suggests that a company has lower fixed costs relative to variable costs. Therefore, profits may be less sensitive to changes in sales volume, but the company may also have less potential for scalability and explosive profit growth.

For SMBs, understanding operating leverage is crucial because it can influence decisions on pricing, cost management, and investment in assets that have fixed costs. It can also affect how a business responds to economic downturns or upturns, as those with high operating leverage may be more vulnerable during slow periods but can benefit greatly during periods of growth.

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Operating Leverage vs. Financial Leverage

While operating leverage is concerned with the cost structure of a company's operations, financial leverage relates to the structure of a company's finances, specifically its use of debt. Financial leverage measures the extent to which a company uses borrowed money (debt) to finance its operations.

The key difference between the two lies in their focus areas:

  • Operating leverage deals with the impact of fixed operating costs on a company's earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).
  • Financial leverage is about the impact of fixed financial costs, such as interest on debt, on a company's earnings per share (EPS).

High operating leverage indicates that a small percentage increase in sales can lead to a larger percentage increase in operating income. In contrast, high financial leverage means that a small increase in operating income can lead to a larger percentage increase in net income and EPS, due to the presence of debt.

For SMBs, managing both types of leverage is crucial for financial stability. High levels of either can amplify profits in good times but can also amplify losses during downturns.

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How to Calculate Operating Leverage

To calculate operating leverage, you can use the following formula:

Degree of Operating Leverage (DOL) = Percentage Change in EBIT / Percentage Change in Sales

Here's how to calculate it step by step:

  1. Determine the company's current sales and the change in sales over a period.
  2. Calculate the change in EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) over the same period.
  3. Compute the percentage change in sales and the percentage change in EBIT.
  4. Divide the percentage change in EBIT by the percentage change in sales.

The resulting figure is the Degree of Operating Leverage. A higher DOL indicates higher operating leverage, meaning the company's earnings are more sensitive to changes in sales.

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Why is Operating Leverage Important?

Operating leverage is important for several reasons, especially for SMBs:

  1. Profitability Analysis: It helps businesses understand how changes in sales volumes can affect their profitability.
  2. Cost Structure Insights: Operating leverage provides insights into a company's cost structure, allowing for better strategic planning and management.
  3. Pricing Strategy: Understanding operating leverage can inform pricing strategies, as businesses with high operating leverage may price more aggressively to cover fixed costs.
  4. Risk Assessment: It allows businesses to assess the level of risk associated with their fixed costs. High operating leverage implies higher business risk during sales downturns.
  5. Investment Decisions: SMBs can make more informed decisions about investing in assets or infrastructure with significant fixed costs.
  6. Performance Benchmarking: Operating leverage can serve as a benchmark for performance against competitors and industry standards.
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Operating Leverage Benchmarks

For SMBs, operating leverage benchmarks can vary significantly depending on the industry and business model. However, a common benchmark is comparing the company's degree of operating leverage against industry averages or similar companies. This comparison can provide insights into the company's cost structure and potential for profit growth relative to its peers.

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What Does It Mean When Operating Leverage is Going Up?

When operating leverage is going up, it means that a company's fixed costs are becoming a larger part of its total cost structure relative to variable costs. This can indicate that the company is investing in assets or infrastructure that have fixed costs, such as machinery or technology, with the expectation of increased sales volume. While this can lead to greater profits with increasing sales, it also increases the company's risk if sales do not meet expectations.

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What Does It Mean When Operating Leverage is Going Down?

When operating leverage is going down, it suggests that a company's variable costs are increasing relative to fixed costs. This could be due to a strategic shift towards a more variable cost structure, perhaps in response to uncertain or fluctuating market conditions. A lower operating leverage means that the company's profits are less sensitive to changes in sales volume, which can provide more stability in earnings.

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What Does It Mean When Operating Leverage is Flat?

If operating leverage is flat, it indicates that the proportion of fixed costs to variable costs in the company's cost structure is remaining constant over time. This stability can be a sign that the company is maintaining its operational efficiency and that its business model is not undergoing significant changes in terms of cost structure.

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How to Improve Operating Leverage

To improve operating leverage, SMBs can consider the following strategies:

  1. Increase Sales Volume: Boosting sales can spread fixed costs over a larger revenue base, improving operating leverage.
  2. Control Fixed Costs: Review and manage fixed costs to ensure they are optimized for current business operations.
  3. Invest in Efficient Technology: Invest in technology that improves productivity without significantly increasing fixed costs.
  4. Outsource Non-Core Activities: Outsource activities that are not core to the business to convert fixed costs into variable costs.
  5. Improve Operational Efficiency: Streamline operations to reduce waste and improve margins without increasing fixed costs.

Operating leverage is a vital financial concept for SMBs, providing insight into how changes in sales volume impact profitability. It is a measure of the proportion of fixed costs in a company's cost structure and is crucial for strategic planning, risk management, and investment decisions. Understanding and managing operating leverage can help SMBs optimize their cost structures and enhance their potential for profit growth.

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