Capital Intensive

Capital Intensive Definition

Capital Intensive refers to those industries or companies that require large upfront capital investments in machinery, plant & equipment in order to produce goods or services in high volumes and maintain higher levels of profit margins and return on investments. Capital Intensive companies have a higher proportion of fixed assets as compared to the total assets. Capital Intensive Industries examples include Oil & Gas, Automobiles, Manufacturing Firms, Real Estate, Metals & Mining.

Capital Intensive

Example of High Capital Intensive Industries

Imagine you are a utility provider and want to set up a plant that provides electricity to southern California. For this, the company has to build either coal, nuclear, or wind power stations. After which they set up a transmission sector and then a billing and retail sector. To do all these, the upfront costs will, in general, be billions of USD dollars – which are recorded as assets in the company’s balance sheet. For example, PG&E, the electric provider that is under strict scrutiny for recent California fires, the total asset value is 89 billion dollars, and of which more than 65 billion USD is for different types of plant property and equipment. It means PG&E has spent a lot to set up its plants and uses only a fraction of it as working capital. Now, let us look at a low capital-intensive company.

Example of Low Capital Intensive Industries

Imagine you are a software provider. You create software products and sell them off for a profit. In this case, there are no direct upfront costs. You hire a bunch of engineers, and the only upfront costs are going to be their salaries. In the same case, look at the asset size of Facebook. The total asset value of Facebook (the plant property and equipment) is just over 100 billion USD. However, Facebook is worth over 400 billion USD. The reason is that Facebook is not a capital-intensive company. Its nature lies in the asset-light nature and the ability to grow the company.

Advantages of Capital-Intensive Industries

The following are some advantages of capital intensive companies.

  • Ford, the car company, stayed as the leader of US automobiles for over 50 years. Even today, there only a few handfuls of automobile manufacturers in the USA. The same is with airplane manufacturing. Since airplane manufacturing is one of the most capital intensive, the ability for a normal person to go out and start a company on his own is almost zero. It ensures the incumbent players are safe and out of competition for everyone. The barriers to entry are high, and not everyone can get into the competition.
  • The ability to have assets on the balance sheet; During the 1950s and 60s, the time was ripe for production-based companies. In addition, all these production companies require heavy capital investment. People who invested in these companies looked at the amount they invested in plant property and equipment and decided the value of the company. It is essentially called value investing. Because people wanted to buy shares of only asset-heavy companies, the investment in such companies remained safe.
  • All capital investments are tax-deductible and easily trackable. One can always put a price on GE’s plane engines or a factory that produces a million bolts per month. This tangible nature helps people in analyzing the companies better and, in turn, made investing easy. Apart from these, investing in intangible assets was not a capital investment and will not be tax-deductible. This extra benefit nudged people towards investing more in capital-intensive works.

Disadvantages of Capital Intensive Projects

The following are some disadvantages of capital intensive projects.

  • Facebook had multiple iterations before it released its first version of the world. It is because all the incremental improvements were easy – because the project was not capital intensive. In capital-intensive projects, the risk of loss is low, but the quantum of possible losses is extremely high.
  • If the company goes to fire sale, the losses will be high. The fire sale is when the company requires money for working capital and sells off the assets. As the company sets itself for a fire sale, its assets lose value so fast that only 30-35% of it will be realized.
  • The company cannot pivot easily. Most companies experiment with the nature of their products. Netflix pivoted from a CD-based business to a streaming service in a matter of a year. Whereas GE, which is an extremely capital-intensive company, took over 15 years to change its direction. Spending money on projects anchors you over in that domain and makes movement difficult.
  • The competition will be strong. We argued that capital heavy companies are safe from competition because of their high barriers. However, in case there is a competition, the competition will be quite strong—the example of Boeing Vs. Airbus is a great one. Until they both are the only players, they had market dominance and controlled the prices. However, when the Brazilian government helped the barrier in becoming one of the major airplane manufacturers by subsidizing them, it took a huge chunk of market share because of cheaper planes. It explains how, even though capital intensive companies are safe and the probability of competition is low, once competition comes in, the possible losses are high.


There are multiple reasons and decisions that go into whether the company should be capital intensive or not. There are businesses where initial high capital is not a choice (utilities, power, automobiles), and there is a business where high capital intensive nature is a choice (streaming, software, etc.). Looking at the current companies, the power they hold, the ability of them to keep the market share, one can decide how capital intensive his company or project should be.

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