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 can see that International Paper Company (NYSE:IP) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does International Paper Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that International Paper had US$8.61b of debt in September 2020, down from US$10.3b, one year before. On the flip side, it has US$5.53b in cash leading to net debt of about US$3.08b.
How Strong Is International Paper's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that International Paper had liabilities of US$8.48b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$16.3b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$5.53b as well as receivables valued at US$3.42b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$15.8b.
This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of US$19.9b. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
While International Paper's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.96 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 4.2 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Unfortunately, International Paper's EBIT flopped 16% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine International Paper's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
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, International Paper recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 96% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Neither International Paper's ability to grow its EBIT nor its level of total liabilities gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But the good news is it seems to be able to convert EBIT to free cash flow with ease. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that International Paper is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Consider risks, for instance. Every company has them, and we've spotted 6 warning signs for International Paper 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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