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. Importantly, V.F. Corporation (NYSE:VFC) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is V.F's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that V.F had debt of US$2.17b at the end of June 2019, a reduction from US$3.48b over a year. However, it does have US$606.1m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.56b.
A Look At V.F's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that V.F had liabilities of US$1.95b due within a year, and liabilities of US$4.30b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$606.1m in cash and US$1.31b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$4.34b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Since publicly traded V.F shares are worth a very impressive total of US$32.6b, 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
V.F's net debt is only 0.66 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 25.8 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. On top of that, V.F grew its EBIT by 32% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. 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 V.F 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.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, V.F's free cash flow amounted to 21% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
The good news is that V.F's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that V.F takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that V.F insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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