Stock Analysis

Is Federal Signal (NYSE:FSS) A Risky Investment?

NYSE:FSS
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Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. Importantly, Federal Signal Corporation (NYSE:FSS) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Federal Signal

What Is Federal Signal's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2022 Federal Signal had debt of US$329.5m, up from US$252.0m in one year. However, it also had US$35.5m in cash, and so its net debt is US$294.0m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:FSS Debt to Equity History December 22nd 2022

How Strong Is Federal Signal's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Federal Signal had liabilities of US$181.4m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$455.7m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$35.5m and US$170.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$431.6m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Given Federal Signal has a market capitalization of US$2.79b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.

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). 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).

We'd say that Federal Signal's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.5), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its strong interest cover of 19.9 times, makes us even more comfortable. The good news is that Federal Signal has increased its EBIT by 2.5% over twelve months, which should ease any concerns about debt repayment. 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 Federal Signal'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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Federal Signal recorded free cash flow of 45% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.

Our View

The good news is that Federal Signal's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And we also thought its net debt to EBITDA was a positive. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Federal Signal can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. 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. To that end, you should be aware of the 1 warning sign we've spotted with Federal Signal .

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.

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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.