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 can see that Federal Signal Corporation (NYSE:FSS) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Federal Signal Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Federal Signal had debt of US$208.8m at the end of June 2019, a reduction from US$248.1m over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$39.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$169.8m.
A Look At Federal Signal's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Federal Signal had liabilities of US$166.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$349.6m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$39.0m as well as receivables valued at US$145.9m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$330.7m.
Given Federal Signal has a market capitalization of US$1.96b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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).
Federal Signal's net debt is only 0.97 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 16.6 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. On top of that, Federal Signal grew its EBIT by 32% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Federal Signal 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.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Federal Signal recorded free cash flow worth 59% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Federal Signal's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And the good news does not stop there, as its EBIT growth rate also supports that impression! Zooming out, Federal Signal seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Federal Signal 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.
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.
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