ACCO Brands (NYSE:ACCO) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

David Iben put it well when he said, ‘Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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. We note that ACCO Brands Corporation (NYSE:ACCO) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for ACCO Brands

What Is ACCO Brands’s Debt?

As you can see below, ACCO Brands had US$1.10b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has US$94.1m in cash leading to net debt of about US$1.00b.

NYSE:ACCO Historical Debt, October 22nd 2019
NYSE:ACCO Historical Debt, October 22nd 2019

How Healthy Is ACCO Brands’s Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that ACCO Brands had liabilities of US$500.6m due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.67b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$94.1m in cash and US$460.5m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.62b.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$971.2m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, ACCO Brands would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

ACCO Brands has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.6 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 5.5 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn’t want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Unfortunately, ACCO Brands saw its EBIT slide 5.7% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. 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 ACCO Brands 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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, ACCO Brands recorded free cash flow worth 55% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Mulling over ACCO Brands’s attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we’re certainly not enthusiastic. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, it seems to us that ACCO Brands’s balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we’re almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner’s fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if ACCO Brands insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

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.

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.