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Is MTS Systems (NASDAQ:MTSC) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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 note that MTS Systems Corporation (NASDAQ:MTSC) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for MTS Systems

What Is MTS Systems's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 MTS Systems had US$460.9m of debt, an increase on US$391.3m, over one year. On the flip side, it has US$77.4m in cash leading to net debt of about US$383.5m.

NasdaqGS:MTSC Historical Debt, September 27th 2019

How Strong Is MTS Systems's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, MTS Systems had liabilities of US$248.2m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$514.6m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$77.4m and US$200.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$485.2m.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since MTS Systems has a market capitalization of US$1.08b, 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.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

MTS Systems has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.2 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.1 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. The good news is that MTS Systems grew its EBIT a smooth 31% over the last twelve months. Like the milk of human kindness that sort of growth increases resilience, making the company more capable of managing debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if MTS Systems 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. During the last three years, MTS Systems produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 68% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

The good news is that MTS Systems's demonstrated ability to grow its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its interest cover. All these things considered, it appears that MTS Systems can comfortably handle its current debt levels. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that MTS Systems 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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.