Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. We can see that United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does United States Steel Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that United States Steel had US$4.10b of debt in September 2021, down from US$4.80b, one year before. On the flip side, it has US$2.04b in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.06b.
A Look At United States Steel's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that United States Steel had liabilities of US$4.03b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$5.30b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.04b and US$2.34b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$4.95b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$6.92b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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).
United States Steel's net debt is only 0.52 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 13.4 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. It was also good to see that despite losing money on the EBIT line last year, United States Steel turned things around in the last 12 months, delivering and EBIT of US$3.2b. 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 United States Steel 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of the earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) is backed by free cash flow. During the last year, United States Steel produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 72% 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 United States Steel's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its level of total liabilities. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that United States Steel 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. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example United States Steel has 2 warning signs (and 1 which can't be ignored) we think you should know about.
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.
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.