Capital Intensive

Capital Intensive Definition

Capital Intensive refers to those industries or companies that require large upfront capital investmentsCapital InvestmentsCapital Investment refers to any investments made into the business with the objective of enhancing the operations. It could be long term acquisition by the business such as real estates, machinery, industries, more 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 assetsTotal AssetsTotal Assets is the sum of a company's current and noncurrent assets. Total assets also equals to the sum of total liabilities and total shareholder funds. Total Assets = Liabilities + Shareholder Equityread more. Capital Intensive Industries examples include Oil & Gas, Automobiles, Manufacturing Firms, Real Estate, Metals & Mining.


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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 equipmentPlant Property And EquipmentProperty plant and equipment (PP&E) refers to the fixed tangible assets used in business operations by the company for an extended period or many years. Such non-current assets are not purchased frequently, neither these are readily convertible into cash. read more. It means PG&E has spent a lot to set up its plants and uses only a fraction of it as working capitalWorking CapitalWorking capital is the amount available to a company for day-to-day expenses. It's a measure of a company's liquidity, efficiency, and financial health, and it's calculated using a simple formula: "current assets (accounts receivables, cash, inventories of unfinished goods and raw materials) MINUS current liabilities (accounts payable, debt due in one year)"read more. 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.

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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