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We Think United Airlines Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL) Is Taking Some Risk With Its Debt

Simply Wall St

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, '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. Importantly, United Airlines Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:UAL) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. 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 United Airlines Holdings

How Much Debt Does United Airlines Holdings Carry?

As you can see below, United Airlines Holdings had US$14.1b of debt, at September 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$5.13b in cash, and so its net debt is US$9.02b.

NasdaqGS:UAL Historical Debt, October 23rd 2019

How Healthy Is United Airlines Holdings's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that United Airlines Holdings had liabilities of US$15.7b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$25.2b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$5.13b as well as receivables valued at US$1.62b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$34.2b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$22.7b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, United Airlines Holdings would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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). 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).

United Airlines Holdings has net debt of just 1.3 times EBITDA, indicating that it is certainly not a reckless borrower. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 7.9 times the interest expense over the last year. Also positive, United Airlines Holdings grew its EBIT by 29% 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 it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine United Airlines Holdings'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.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, United Airlines Holdings recorded free cash flow of 30% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

United Airlines Holdings's level of total liabilities and conversion of EBIT to free cash flow definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But its EBIT growth rate tells a very different story, and suggests some resilience. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that United Airlines Holdings is taking some risks with its use of debt. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if United Airlines Holdings insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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.