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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Apple's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Apple had US$108.4b of debt at June 2019, down from US$114.6b a year prior. On the flip side, it has US$94.6b in cash leading to net debt of about US$13.8b.
How Strong Is Apple's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Apple had liabilities of US$89.7b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$136.1b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$94.6b and US$26.5b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$104.7b.
Given Apple has a humongous market capitalization of US$929.6b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward. Carrying virtually no net debt, Apple has a very light debt load indeed.
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.
Apple has a low debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.18. And remarkably, despite having net debt, it actually received more in interest over the last twelve months than it had to pay. So there's no doubt this company can take on debt while staying cool as a cucumber. On the other hand, Apple saw its EBIT drop by 5.1% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue to decline at that rate the company may have increasing difficulty managing its debt load. 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 Apple 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.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Apple generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 88% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
The good news is that Apple'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 EBIT growth rate does undermine this impression a bit. When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Apple 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. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Apple's earnings per share history 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.
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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.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.