Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. Importantly, Forward Air Corporation (NASDAQ:FWRD) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Forward Air's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 Forward Air had US$57.5m of debt, an increase on US$40.8m, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$14.8m, its net debt is less, at about US$42.7m.
How Strong Is Forward Air's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Forward Air had liabilities of US$136.6m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$249.9m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$14.8m as well as receivables valued at US$154.7m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$217.0m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given Forward Air has a market capitalization of US$1.73b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Forward Air's net debt is only 0.27 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 57.4 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. The good news is that Forward Air has increased its EBIT by 5.9% over twelve months, which should ease any concerns about debt repayment. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Forward Air's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, Forward Air recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 80% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
Forward Air's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! Looking at the bigger picture, we think Forward Air's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Forward Air insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
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.
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