Stock Analysis

Kellogg (NYSE:K) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

NYSE:K
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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. As with many other companies Kellogg Company (NYSE:K) makes use of 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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Kellogg

What Is Kellogg's Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Kellogg had US$6.89b of debt in April 2023, down from US$7.35b, one year before. However, it does have US$356.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$6.54b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:K Debt to Equity History June 26th 2023

A Look At Kellogg's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Kellogg had liabilities of US$6.00b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$8.15b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$356.0m and US$1.82b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$12.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit isn't so bad because Kellogg is worth a massive US$22.3b, 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Kellogg has net debt to EBITDA of 3.4 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. But the high interest coverage of 7.0 suggests it can easily service that debt. Importantly, Kellogg's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 27% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then paying off its debt will be about as easy as herding cats on to a roller coaster. 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 Kellogg 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 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 most recent three years, Kellogg recorded free cash flow worth 67% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Kellogg's struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Kellogg's debt poses some risks to the business. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that Kellogg is showing 4 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...

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.