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.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. We note that Minerals Technologies Inc. (NYSE:MTX) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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.
How Much Debt Does Minerals Technologies Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Minerals Technologies had US$966.6m in debt in September 2020; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$381.8m, its net debt is less, at about US$584.8m.
How Healthy Is Minerals Technologies's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Minerals Technologies had liabilities of US$272.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$1.47b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$381.8m and US$363.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$995.2m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because Minerals Technologies is worth US$2.02b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up 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.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Minerals Technologies's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.0 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 5.4 times last year. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Unfortunately, Minerals Technologies's EBIT flopped 19% over the last four quarters. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. 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 Minerals Technologies'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. During the last three years, Minerals Technologies produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 61% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Minerals Technologies's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is relatively strong. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Minerals Technologies'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. 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. Consider for instance, the ever-present spectre of investment risk. We've identified 1 warning sign with Minerals Technologies , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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.
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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. 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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