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 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. We note that Colgate-Palmolive Company (NYSE:CL) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Colgate-Palmolive Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Colgate-Palmolive had US$6.65b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$929.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$5.72b.
How Strong Is Colgate-Palmolive's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Colgate-Palmolive had liabilities of US$3.78b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$9.38b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$929.0m and US$1.59b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$10.6b.
Since publicly traded Colgate-Palmolive shares are worth a very impressive total of US$62.0b, 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.
Colgate-Palmolive has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.4. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 23.7 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Sadly, Colgate-Palmolive's EBIT actually dropped 9.7% in the last year. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Colgate-Palmolive'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. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Colgate-Palmolive produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 67% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Happily, Colgate-Palmolive's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its EBIT growth rate. All these things considered, it appears that Colgate-Palmolive can comfortably handle its current debt levels. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Colgate-Palmolive 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.
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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