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.' 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 Trimble Inc. (NASDAQ:TRMB) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Trimble Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, Trimble had US$1.74b of debt, up from US$1.29b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have US$199.6m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.54b.
How Strong Is Trimble's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Trimble had liabilities of US$1.08b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.98b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$199.6m and US$546.8m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$2.30b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Trimble has a market capitalization of US$9.45b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Trimble has net debt worth 2.4 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 4.7 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Importantly, Trimble grew its EBIT by 39% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Trimble'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. Happily for any shareholders, Trimble actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Happily, Trimble's impressive conversion of EBIT to free cash flow implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its net debt to EBITDA. Zooming out, Trimble seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Trimble 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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