Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about. 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. Importantly, Kimberly-Clark Corporation (NYSE:KMB) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Kimberly-Clark's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 Kimberly-Clark had US$8.03b of debt, an increase on US$7.55b, over one year. However, it also had US$534.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$7.50b.
How Strong Is Kimberly-Clark's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Kimberly-Clark had liabilities of US$6.59b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$8.71b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$534.0m as well as receivables valued at US$2.40b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$12.4b.
This deficit isn't so bad because Kimberly-Clark is worth a massive US$47.5b, 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.
Kimberly-Clark's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 2.0 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its commanding EBIT of 12.5 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Sadly, Kimberly-Clark's EBIT actually dropped 4.5% 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. 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 Kimberly-Clark 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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Kimberly-Clark recorded free cash flow worth 62% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
On our analysis Kimberly-Clark's interest cover 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 example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. Considering this range of data points, we think Kimberly-Clark 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. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Kimberly-Clark insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
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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