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’. 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. As with many other companies 3M Company (NYSE:MMM) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, 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.
What Is 3M’s Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of September 2019, 3M had US$19.4b of debt, up from US$14.9k a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$7.76b in cash, and so its net debt is US$11.7b.
How Strong Is 3M’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that 3M had liabilities of US$7.82b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$24.0b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$7.76b as well as receivables valued at US$5.02b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$19.0b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Of course, 3M has a titanic market capitalization of US$103.5b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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).
3M’s net debt is only 1.5 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 19.0 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. On the other hand, 3M’s EBIT dived 17%, over the last year. If that rate of decline in earnings continues, the company could find itself in a tight spot. 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 3M can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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. During the last three years, 3M produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 71% 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.
On our analysis 3M’s interest cover should signal that it won’t have too much trouble with its debt. However, our other observations weren’t so heartening. In particular, EBIT growth rate gives us cold feet. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that 3M is managing its debt quite well. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. We’d be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that 3M insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you’re in luck, since today we’re sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
If you’re interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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