Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 AstraZeneca PLC (LON:AZN) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is AstraZeneca's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that AstraZeneca had US$21.1b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it does have US$6.25b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$14.8b.
How Healthy Is AstraZeneca's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that AstraZeneca had liabilities of US$16.0b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$30.8b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$6.25b in cash and US$5.57b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$35.0b.
This deficit isn't so bad because AstraZeneca is worth a massive US$117.5b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
AstraZeneca's debt is 2.8 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.9 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. We note that AstraZeneca grew its EBIT by 27% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. 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 AstraZeneca 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, AstraZeneca actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
The good news is that AstraZeneca's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its net debt to EBITDA does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that AstraZeneca takes a pretty sensible approach to 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 AstraZeneca insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
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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