A Resolution of the Distress Risk and Leverage Puzzles in the Cross Section of Stock Returns
Journal of Financial Economics, Vol. 96, pp. 56-79, 2010
55 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2008 Last revised: 6 Jul 2010
Date Written: April 1, 2009
We revisit findings that returns are negatively related to financial distress intensity and leverage. These are puzzles under frictionless capital markets assumptions, but consistent with optimizing firms that differ in their exposure to financial distress costs. Firms with high costs choose low leverage to avoid distress, but retain exposure to the systematic risk of bearing such costs in low states. Empirical results are consistent with this explanation. The return premiums to low leverage and low distress are significant in raw returns, and even stronger in risk-adjusted returns. When in distress, low leverage firms suffer more than high leverage firms as measured by a deterioration in accounting operating performance and heightened exposure to systematic risk. The connection between return premiums and distress costs is apparent in subperiod evidence—both are small or insignificant prior to 1980 and larger and significant thereafter.
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