Operating leverage is a measure of the combination of fixed costs and variable costs in a company’s cost structure. A company with high fixed costs and low variable costs has high operating leverage; whereas a company with low fixed costs and high variable costs has low operating leverage.
A company with high operating leverage depends more on sales volume for profitability. The company must generate high sales volume to cover the high fixed costs. In other words, as sales increase, the company becomes more profitable. In a company with a cost structure that has low operating leverage, increasing sales volume will not dramatically improve profitability since variable costs increase proportionately with sales volume.
This term relates directly to a company’s contribution margin and breakeven point. Contribution margin is essentially a product’s selling price minus its unit-level variable cost. A product with proportionately less variable cost has a higher contribution margin. Hence, a product with a higher contribution margin corresponds with a production process that has high operating leverage – or higher fixed costs in relation to variable costs.
Similarly, a company with a high breakeven point has high operating leverage. The breakeven point refers to the level of sales volume at which per-unit profits fully cover fixed costs of production. In other words, it is the point at which revenues equal costs. Because more fixed costs translate into a higher breakeven point – more sales volume is required to cover the fixed costs – a production process with a high breakeven point utilizes high operating leverage. Of course, when a company with high operating leverage and a high breakeven point reaches sales volumes that exceed the breakeven point, a greater proportion of revenues generating are pure profit.
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The degree of leverage of a company’s cost structure is a ratio that measure’s the sensitivity of profits to changes in sales volume. In other words, this measures the degree to which a change in sales impacts profitability. In a company with high leverage, changes in sales volume magnify changes in profitability. Whereas in a company with low leverage the effects of fluctuations in sales volume impact profitability to a smaller degree. Divide the percentage change in the operating income by the percentage change in sales volume to find the degree of operating leverage. Use the following formula:
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