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 seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. Importantly, Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. 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.
What Is Pfizer's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, Pfizer had US$46.7b of debt, up from US$41.0b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$13.0b in cash, and so its net debt is US$33.7b.
How Healthy Is Pfizer's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Pfizer had liabilities of US$32.0b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$64.2b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$13.0b in cash and US$13.5b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$69.8b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Pfizer has a very large market capitalization of US$198.7b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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 Pfizer's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.5), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its commanding EBIT of 18.5 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Fortunately, Pfizer grew its EBIT by 4.9% in the last year, making that debt load look even more manageable. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Pfizer's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. During the last three years, Pfizer generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 89% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Happily, Pfizer's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Pfizer is pretty sensible with its use of debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Pfizer 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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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.