Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Vulcan Materials Company (NYSE:VMC) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Vulcan Materials Carry?
As you can see below, Vulcan Materials had US$2.92b of debt at June 2019, down from US$3.14b a year prior. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.
A Look At Vulcan Materials's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Vulcan Materials had liabilities of US$663.6m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$4.45b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$26.0m and US$697.3m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$4.39b.
Vulcan Materials has a very large market capitalization of US$19.8b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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).
Vulcan Materials has net debt worth 2.5 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 6.0 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. We note that Vulcan Materials grew its EBIT by 21% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. 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 Vulcan Materials'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, Vulcan Materials's free cash flow amounted to 44% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
On our analysis Vulcan Materials's EBIT growth rate should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit handle its debt, based on its EBITDA,. Considering this range of data points, we think Vulcan Materials is in a good position to manage its debt levels. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Vulcan Materials's earnings per share history for free.
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.
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