Stock Analysis

Does General Motors (NYSE:GM) Have A Healthy Balance Sheet?

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NYSE:GM
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The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a 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 General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. 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 thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

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How Much Debt Does General Motors Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2023 General Motors had US$120.4b of debt, an increase on US$111.8b, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$27.4b, its net debt is less, at about US$93.0b.

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NYSE:GM Debt to Equity History October 4th 2023

A Look At General Motors' Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, General Motors had liabilities of US$92.7b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$107.1b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$27.4b as well as receivables valued at US$14.1b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$158.4b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$44.7b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, General Motors would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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). 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).

As it happens General Motors has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.5 but very strong interest coverage of 65.9. So either it has access to very cheap long term debt or that interest expense is going to grow! General Motors grew its EBIT by 7.6% in the last year. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine General Motors'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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, General Motors recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 96% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.

Our View

While General Motors's level of total liabilities has us nervous. To wit both its interest cover and conversion of EBIT to free cash flow were encouraging signs. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that General Motors is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. 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 2 warning signs for General Motors you should be aware of.

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.

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Find out whether General Motors is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.