The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says ‘The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.’ So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. As with many other companies Dow Inc. (NYSE:DOW) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can’t easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Dow Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Dow had US$15.4b of debt in June 2021, down from US$17.5b, one year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$3.60b, its net debt is less, at about US$11.8b.
A Look At Dow’s Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Dow had liabilities of US$12.3b due within a year, and liabilities of US$33.3b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$3.60b as well as receivables valued at US$9.16b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$32.9b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of US$42.8b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Dow’s use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
We measure a company’s debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
With net debt sitting at just 1.4 times EBITDA, Dow is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And it boasts interest cover of 7.1 times, which is more than adequate. On top of that, Dow grew its EBIT by 84% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Dow can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you’re focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Dow generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 84% of its EBIT, more than we’d expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
Dow’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14’s goalkeeper. But truth be told we feel its level of total liabilities does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Dow takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet – far from it. For example Dow has 3 warning signs (and 1 which is a bit concerning) we think you should know about.
If you’re interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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