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We Think Universal Logistics Holdings (NASDAQ:ULH) Can Stay On Top Of Its Debt

Simply Wall St

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:ULH) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

View our latest analysis for Universal Logistics Holdings

How Much Debt Does Universal Logistics Holdings Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Universal Logistics Holdings had debt of US$364.4m, up from US$272.2m in one year. However, it also had US$16.1m in cash, and so its net debt is US$348.3m.

NasdaqGS:ULH Historical Debt, August 16th 2019

How Strong Is Universal Logistics Holdings's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Universal Logistics Holdings had liabilities of US$251.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$439.7m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$16.1m as well as receivables valued at US$229.5m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$445.2m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$556.9m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Universal Logistics Holdings's use of debt. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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).

Universal Logistics Holdings has net debt worth 2.0 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 6.2 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Importantly, Universal Logistics Holdings grew its EBIT by 54% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. 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 Universal Logistics 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Universal Logistics Holdings recorded free cash flow of 41% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.

Our View

When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Universal Logistics Holdings was the fact that it seems able to grow its EBIT confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit to handle its total liabilities. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Universal Logistics Holdings's debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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 Universal Logistics Holdings's earnings per share history for free.

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

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.