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Does Pecking Order Hypothesis Explain Capital Structure

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Determining the optimum capital structure which an organisation should have is a major financial decision, and the importance of decisions regarding capital structure have become even more apparent due to economic events such as the global financial crisis (Baker and Martin, 2011). Hossain and Ali (2012) state that all firms are highly susceptible to decisions regarding capital structure, owing to their internal and external effects on organisations. They further point out that capital structure policies are significant because of their impact on the level of risk and return of a firm. As such, a number of theories have been proposed to explain the capital structure of organisations. One of such is the Pecking order hypothesis. This essay shall examine this hypothesis and how it explains capital structure. Subsequently, it shall be compared to another theory of capital structure, the static trade-off theory, in order to find out how it differs from this theory. Studies testing both theories shall also be examined.

According to Chen and Chen (2011, p. 92), the Pecking order hypothesis is "one of the most influential theories of corporate finance”. Frank and Goyal (2003) further note that much of its influence is drawn from a view that logically fits with facts on how external finance is used by companies. This hypothesis suggests that in making a choice among alternative forms of finance, organisations have a certain order of priorities. In the first instance, firms prefer to make use of internal finance generated by their operating cash flow. When these internal sources are used up, they prefer to borrow. The third option, which is used as a last resort, is the sale of new shares of the company (Pike and Neal, 2009). The rationale for this preference order is the information asymmetry problem, i.e. the disparity between the information managers and potential investors have regarding the financial state of the firm and its prospects. As such, managers are less inclined to issue shares when they believe these shares to be undervalued, and more likely to issue them when it is believed that they are overvalued (Chen and Chen, 2011; Pike and Neale, 2009). As a result of this, shareholders, mindful of their relative ignorance of the firm's financial state and of this possible behaviour by managers, will view a decision not to issue shares is a signal of good news, while the issuing of shares will be seen as bad, or relatively less good (Myers and Majluf, 1984). These signals are 'noisy signals' (Chen and Chen, 2011), and viewing issued shares as overvalued or 'less good' affect the price investors will be willing to pay for those shares, and they may consequently mark them down. This could therefore increase the cost of equity for firms (Pike and Neale, 2009). Transaction costs, as Chen and Chen (2011) point out, play a significant role in decisions regarding the firm's capital structure. This is because the costs involved in obtaining finance internally are less than the transaction costs involved in securing new external financing, as internal funds do not incur transaction costs. As such, it is expected by investors that firms would first finance company investments using internal resources first, then by borrowing till the firm has a suitable debt to equity ratio, and finally, by issuing equity (Myers and Majluf, 1984; Pike and Neale, 2009). Frank and Goyal (2003, p. 218) note that "the financing deficit should normally be matched dollar for dollar by a change in corporate debt”, and as such, if the pecking order is followed by firms, then a slope coefficient of one results from a regression of net debt issues on financing debt. This prediction was strongly supported by results from a study by Shyam-Sunder and Myers (1999), using a sample of 157 which had traded continually from 1971 to 1989. However, it should be noted that this sample was relatively small, and consisted mainly of mature, public firms. Chen and Chen (2011) note that an assumption of the Pecking order theory is that there is no target capital structure.

The pecking order theory has been used widely to explain the financing decisions of organisations. One of its main advantages is that it correctly predicts the effects profits have (Frank and Goyal, 2009; Shyam-Sunder and Myers, 1999). However, there are some problems with this hypothesis. As Frank and Goyal (2003, 2009) observe, firm operations and their accounting structures are more complex than what is represented in the standard pecking order. Furthermore, contrary to what is usually suggested, Frank and Goyal (2003) report that internal financing is usually not enough to cover the average investment spending, and there is a heavy use of external financing among firms. They also note that the magnitude of debt financing does not overshadow equity financing. Additionally, while there is wide support for the pecking order theory among larger firms and in earlier years, with the increase in the number of small firms trading publicly, there has been a decline in the support for the pecking order hypothesis, as small firms tend not to follow the pecking order, leading to a shift in the overall average away from the pecking order (Frank and Goyal, 2003).

Nevertheless, the pecking order hypothesis still offers a useful explanation for the financing model followed by firms, especially larger firms. Some studies of the pecking order hypothesis will be discussed in the next section.


Having discussed the Pecking order theory in detail, the static trade-off theory will be briefly discussed in this section, and a comparison made to show the differences between both.

The static-trade off theory acknowledges that firms aim to take advantage of the lower cost benefits borrowing offers, particularly the tax shield. However, at the same time, they are also hesitant to increase the financial risks which committing to contracts and making ongoing interest and capital repayments would involve. As such, the returns and cost benefits are traded off against the risks of financial distress from excess borrowing, and firms which have higher and more stable profits would likely operate at higher debt levels, as there would be a greater opportunity to shelter their profits from tax (Pike and Neale, 2009; Shyam-Sunder and Myers, 1999). Figure 1 below illustrates the static trade off theory of optimal capital structure.


static trade off theory

Source: Shyam-Sunder and Myers (1999, p. 220)

For a value maximising-firm, benefits and costs would be equated at the margin, and it would operate at the highest point of the curve. For profitable, safe firms, which have higher taxes to shield and assets which would avoid relatively major damage to their asset values, the curve would top out at comparatively high debt ratios (Shyam-Sunder and Myers, 1999). Shyam-Sunder and Myers (1999, p. 220) note that this static trade off theory translates quickly to empirical hypothesis, it predicts that the actual debt ratio will reverse to an optimum or target level, and also predicts "a cross-sectional relation between average debt ratios and asset risk, profitability, tax status and asset type”.

As noted earlier, in the Pecking order theory, there is no target capital structure. However, from the explanation above, it can be observed that this is not the case with the static trade off theory, as it supposes an optimum/target capital structure. This is a key difference between the Pecking order hypothesis and the static-trade off theory. Myers (1984) observes that while in the static trade off there is a debt to value ratio target set by the firm, which it steadily works towards attaining, for the pecking order theory, there is no well-defined ratio of target debt to value, but instead, internal financing is used first, before debt, and then issuing equity, due to signalling issues associated with external funding and asymmetric information (Shyam-Sunder and Myers, 1999).

Hackbarth, Hennessy and Leland (2007) note that there is a debt 'pecking order' within the trade-off theory, with a preference for bank debt over market debt, as lower bankruptcy costs are implied. As such, small firms tend towards issuing privately placed debt, while larger firms are more prone to issuing market debt (Blackwell and Kidwell, 1988; Hackbarth et al, 2007).

While the static trade off theory places strong considerable emphasis on taxes and bankruptcy costs (Frank and Goyal, 2007), and the tax shield advantage of debt, the pecking order hypothesis does not really focus on this. However, this shield advantage is quite important, and as Chen and Chen (2011) report, based on their study of 305 Taiwanese electronic listed firms in 2009, large firms tend to take advantage of the tax shield which debt offers. They also point out that due to their lower information asymmetry and lower and more diversified risk, they tend to have relative advantages when raising finance from formal institutions. However, they note that firms still use internal capital to finance new projects, and turn to debt when internal capital is insufficient, in line with the pecking order hypothesis. This is also supported by Graham and Harvey's (2001) survey of 392 chief financial officers. The results of the survey showed that the tax advantage of debt is seen as moderately important in making capital structure decisions, and for large companies in particular, this tax advantage was cited as 'most important'.

A key point to note is that profitability, growth opportunities, asset structure and risk are key variables that influence the capital structure a firm adopts (Cassar and Holmes, 2003; Chen and Chen, 2011), and this could also possibly influence the model of capital structure firms appear to follow. The key variables influencing capital structure highlight another difference between both models, which is that while with the trade-off model, variances in an organisation's leverage are driven by the costs and benefits of debt, with the pecking order theory, these are driven by the net cash flows of the firm (i.e. its cash earnings minus investment expenditures) (Fama and French, 2002).

A test of the static trade off theory and the pecking order hypothesis by Shyam-Sunder and Myers (1999) revealed that the pecking order model has a higher time-series explanatory power than the static trade-off theory. They note that it explains far more of the time-series variance in real debt ratios, rather than the static trade off theory's target adjustment model. However, they also note that if a firm's actual mode of financing adheres to the static trade off theory, then the pecking order hypothesis can be rejected, while in contrast, the static trade off theory appears to work when the financing model follows the pecking order as described earlier. Shyam-Sunder and Myers (1999) therefore state that while the pecking order offers a better initial explanation of firms decisions regarding debt-equity (particularly for mature, public firms as used in the sample of their study), the evidence for a definite optimum debt ratio as predicted by the trade-off theory is questionable.

In a test of the pecking order hypothesis and the trade-off theory using a cross-section of the largest listed firms in China, using three models: the determinants of leverage, the relationship between leverage and dividends, and the determinants of corporate investment, Tong and Green (2005) reported the following results: For the relationship between leverage and profitability, a significant negative correlation was observed, and a significant positive correlation was found for the relationship between current leverage and past dividends, both of which showed more support for the pecking order hypothesis over the trade-off theory. However, the results of the third model, corporate investment determinants, were not conclusive. Nevertheless, their conclusion was that the results tentatively supported the pecking order hypothesis in explaining how Chinese companies make their financing decisions. Studies by Myers (1984) and Fama and French (2002) show a lack of a positive correlation between profits and debt, and the researchers view this as a problem with the trade-off theory. Fama and French (2002) note that while the dividend pay-outs for firms which have higher profit levels and firms with fewer investments is higher, in line with predictions of both models, they note that firms which are more profitable are less levered. This is in line with the pecking order hypothesis, but contradicts the trade-off model. They further note that in line with the predictions of the pecking order model, short-term variances in investment and earnings are mainly covered by debt.


This essay has examined the pecking order hypothesis and how it explains the capital structure of firms. Its advantages and some of its drawbacks were also highlighted. It was subsequently compared with the static trade off theory, and the differences between both were pointed out, such as the proposition of an optimum/target capital structure, the focus on taxes and bankruptcy costs, and the factors which drive an organisation's leverage. Tests of both theories highlight some of their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and it was noted that certain other factors, such as firm size, profitability etc. can also determine the explanatory powers of both models.


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