Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 Nucor Corporation (NYSE:NUE) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Nucor Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of July 2020 Nucor had US$5.26b of debt, an increase on US$4.29b, over one year. On the flip side, it has US$3.04b in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.22b.
A Look At Nucor's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Nucor had liabilities of US$1.97b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$6.18b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$3.04b and US$1.89b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$3.22b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Nucor has a huge market capitalization of US$14.6b, 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 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).
Nucor has net debt of just 1.0 times EBITDA, indicating that it is certainly not a reckless borrower. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 10.0 times the interest expense over the last year. In fact Nucor's saving grace is its low debt levels, because its EBIT has tanked 56% in the last twelve months. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. 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 Nucor'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.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Nucor recorded free cash flow worth 56% 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.
Based on what we've seen Nucor is not finding it easy, given its EBIT growth rate, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. There's no doubt that its ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT is pretty flash. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Nucor'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. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Case in point: We've spotted 5 warning signs for Nucor you should be aware of.
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.
When trading Nucor or any other investment, use the platform considered by many to be the Professional's Gateway to the Worlds Market, Interactive Brokers. You get the lowest-cost* trading on stocks, options, futures, forex, bonds and funds worldwide from a single integrated account.
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.
*Interactive Brokers Rated Lowest Cost Broker by StockBrokers.com Annual Online Review 2020
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email email@example.com.