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.' 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 Ecolab Inc. (NYSE:ECL) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Ecolab's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Ecolab had US$6.72b of debt in June 2021, down from US$7.28b, one year before. However, it does have US$1.40b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$5.31b.
How Strong Is Ecolab's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Ecolab had liabilities of US$2.88b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$8.92b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.40b as well as receivables valued at US$2.50b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$7.90b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded Ecolab shares are worth a very impressive total of US$62.8b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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).
With a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.0, Ecolab uses debt artfully but responsibly. And the alluring interest cover (EBIT of 9.1 times interest expense) certainly does not do anything to dispel this impression. Sadly, Ecolab's EBIT actually dropped 6.0% in the last year. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. 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 Ecolab 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Ecolab produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 80% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
The good news is that Ecolab's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its EBIT growth rate does undermine this impression a bit. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Ecolab 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. 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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 2 warning signs for Ecolab you should know about.
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.
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.
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