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 Autoliv, Inc. (NYSE:ALV) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Autoliv's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Autoliv had US$2.22b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it does have US$406.4m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.81b.
How Strong Is Autoliv's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Autoliv had liabilities of US$2.42b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$2.33b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$406.4m in cash and US$1.70b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$2.65b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because Autoliv is worth US$6.06b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
We'd say that Autoliv's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.7), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its commanding EBIT of 11.3 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Unfortunately, Autoliv's EBIT flopped 15% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Autoliv can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
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. In the last three years, Autoliv's free cash flow amounted to 22% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Autoliv's EBIT growth rate and conversion of EBIT to free cash flow definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But the good news is it seems to be able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT with ease. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Autoliv is taking some risks with its use of debt. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
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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