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. It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Nokia Corporation (HEL:NOKIA) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Nokia's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of December 2019, Nokia had €4.33b of debt, up from €3.89b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have €6.11b in cash offsetting this, leading to net cash of €1.78b.
A Look At Nokia's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Nokia had liabilities of €12.1b falling due within a year, and liabilities of €11.7b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €6.11b as well as receivables valued at €7.68b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by €9.94b.
This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of €15.4b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution. Despite its noteworthy liabilities, Nokia boasts net cash, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!
The bad news is that Nokia saw its EBIT decline by 14% over the last year. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Nokia'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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. While Nokia has net cash on its balance sheet, it's still worth taking a look at its ability to convert earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to free cash flow, to help us understand how quickly it is building (or eroding) that cash balance. In the last three years, Nokia created free cash flow amounting to 18% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
Although Nokia's balance sheet isn't particularly strong, due to the total liabilities, it is clearly positive to see that it has net cash of €1.78b. Despite its cash we think that Nokia seems to struggle to grow its EBIT, so we are wary of the stock. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Nokia .
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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