Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. As with many other companies Marriott International, Inc. (NASDAQ:MAR) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Marriott International's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Marriott International had debt of US$10.3b, up from US$8.99b in one year. However, it also had US$284.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$9.97b.
How Healthy Is Marriott International's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Marriott International had liabilities of US$5.62b due within a year, and liabilities of US$18.0b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$284.0m as well as receivables valued at US$2.33b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$21.0b.
Marriott International has a very large market capitalization of US$39.9b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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). 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).
Marriott International has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.9 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 6.2 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Unfortunately, Marriott International's EBIT flopped 18% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Marriott International's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Marriott International recorded free cash flow worth 69% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Marriott International's struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Marriott International is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.