Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that ‘Volatility is far from synonymous with risk’. So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. Importantly, CF Industries Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:CF) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is CF Industries Holdings’s Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that CF Industries Holdings had US$3.96b of debt in December 2019, down from US$4.70b, one year before. However, it does have US$287.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$3.67b.
A Look At CF Industries Holdings’s Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that CF Industries Holdings had liabilities of US$665.0m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$5.87b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$287.0m and US$242.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$6.01b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s market capitalization of US$4.60b, we think shareholders really should watch CF Industries Holdings’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
CF Industries Holdings’s net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.0 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 4.3 times last year. While these numbers do not alarm us, it’s worth noting that the cost of the company’s debt is having a real impact. We note that CF Industries 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 CF Industries Holdings’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, CF Industries Holdings actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There’s nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders’ good graces.
Both CF Industries Holdings’s ability to to convert EBIT to free cash flow and its EBIT growth rate gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. In contrast, our confidence was undermined by its apparent struggle to handle its total liabilities. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about CF Industries Holdings’s use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we’d suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Case in point: We’ve spotted 3 warning signs for CF Industries Holdings you should be aware of, and 1 of them can’t be ignored.
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.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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