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. As with many other companies Phillips 66 (NYSE:PSX) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Phillips 66's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Phillips 66 had US$11.3b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$1.82b in cash, and so its net debt is US$9.45b.
How Strong Is Phillips 66's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Phillips 66 had liabilities of US$11.2b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$19.3b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.82b as well as receivables valued at US$6.73b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$21.9b.
This deficit isn't so bad because Phillips 66 is worth a massive US$46.2b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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.
Phillips 66's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 1.5 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its commanding EBIT of 11.0 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. In addition to that, we're happy to report that Phillips 66 has boosted its EBIT by 74%, thus reducing the spectre of future debt repayments. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Phillips 66 can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Phillips 66 recorded free cash flow worth 77% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Happily, Phillips 66's impressive EBIT growth rate implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its level of total liabilities. Zooming out, Phillips 66 seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Phillips 66 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.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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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.