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.' 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. Importantly, HNI Corporation (NYSE:HNI) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does HNI Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of April 2022, HNI had US$243.1m of debt, up from US$175.8m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$24.8m in cash, and so its net debt is US$218.3m.
How Strong Is HNI's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that HNI had liabilities of US$462.9m due within a year, and liabilities of US$480.1m falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$24.8m in cash and US$252.2m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$666.0m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn't so bad because HNI is worth US$1.54b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
HNI has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.4. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 12.3 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. It is just as well that HNI's load is not too heavy, because its EBIT was down 22% over the last year. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. 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 HNI can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
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. Over the last three years, HNI actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Based on what we've seen HNI is not finding it easy, given its EBIT growth rate, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. In particular, we are dazzled with its interest cover. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about HNI's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. 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. Be aware that HNI is showing 3 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is a bit concerning...
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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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.