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 Mills, Inc. (NYSE:GIS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.
What Is General Mills's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that General Mills had US$12.7b of debt in November 2021, down from US$14.0b, one year before. However, it also had US$1.02b in cash, and so its net debt is US$11.7b.
A Look At General Mills' Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, General Mills had liabilities of US$7.81b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$14.3b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$1.02b in cash and US$1.77b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$19.3b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
General Mills has a very large market capitalization of US$41.7b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With net debt to EBITDA of 2.9 General Mills has a fairly noticeable amount of debt. On the plus side, its EBIT was 8.5 times its interest expense, and its net debt to EBITDA, was quite high, at 2.9. Importantly General Mills's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if General Mills 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, General Mills recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 82% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
On our analysis General Mills's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit handle its debt, based on its EBITDA,. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that General Mills is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with General Mills , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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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.