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 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, Biogen Inc. (NASDAQ:BIIB) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free 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, 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 Biogen Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Biogen had US$5.95b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$3.12b, its net debt is less, at about US$2.83b.
How Healthy Is Biogen's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Biogen had liabilities of US$3.21b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$10.1b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$3.12b in cash and US$2.52b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$7.71b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Since publicly traded Biogen shares are worth a very impressive total of US$44.5b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Biogen's net debt is only 0.37 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 93.3 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. And we also note warmly that Biogen grew its EBIT by 12% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Biogen 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Biogen produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 70% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Happily, Biogen's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. 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 Biogen's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. Over time, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, so if you're interested in Biogen, you may well want to click here to check an interactive graph of its earnings per share history.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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