David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We note that Universal Health Services, Inc. (NYSE:UHS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Universal Health Services's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of March 2022, Universal Health Services had US$4.30b of debt, up from US$3.61b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$106.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$4.19b.
How Healthy Is Universal Health Services' Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Universal Health Services had liabilities of US$2.15b due within a year, and liabilities of US$5.03b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$106.0m and US$1.75b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$5.32b.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Universal Health Services has a market capitalization of US$9.27b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Universal Health Services's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 2.2 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its commanding EBIT of 16.2 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Unfortunately, Universal Health Services saw its EBIT slide 6.1% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Universal Health Services 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Universal Health Services produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 62% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Universal Health Services was the fact that it seems able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. It's also worth noting that Universal Health Services is in the Healthcare industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Universal Health Services's use of debt. 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. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Universal Health Services that you should be aware of.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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.