Stock Analysis

Here's Why Federal Signal (NYSE:FSS) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

NYSE:FSS
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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 might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We can see that Federal Signal Corporation (NYSE:FSS) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

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What Is Federal Signal's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2023 Federal Signal had debt of US$408.0m, up from US$324.5m in one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$48.8m, its net debt is less, at about US$359.2m.

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NYSE:FSS Debt to Equity History October 19th 2023

A Look At Federal Signal's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Federal Signal had liabilities of US$198.4m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$538.4m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$48.8m in cash and US$193.4m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$494.6m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Of course, Federal Signal has a market capitalization of US$3.62b, 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.

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).

Federal Signal's net debt is only 1.5 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 10.8 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. On top of that, Federal Signal grew its EBIT by 38% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its 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 Federal Signal 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Federal Signal recorded free cash flow of 37% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.

Our View

Happily, Federal Signal's impressive EBIT growth rate implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But truth be told we feel its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Federal Signal takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Case in point: We've spotted 1 warning sign for Federal Signal you should be aware of.

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.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

Find out whether Federal Signal 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.