U.S. Markets close in 2 hrs 47 mins

Is United Rentals (NYSE:URI) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

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. Importantly, United Rentals, Inc. (NYSE:URI) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for United Rentals

What Is United Rentals's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 United Rentals had debt of US$11.6b, up from US$8.99b in one year. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.

NYSE:URI Historical Debt, September 11th 2019

A Look At United Rentals's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that United Rentals had liabilities of US$2.54b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$13.0b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$75.0m in cash and US$1.53b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$14.0b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$9.57b, we think shareholders really should watch United Rentals's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.

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).

United Rentals's debt is 4.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.9 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. On a slightly more positive note, United Rentals grew its EBIT at 15% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. 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 United Rentals 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 clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, United Rentals produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 58% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Mulling over United Rentals's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making United Rentals stock a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.

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.

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.