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 note that Biogen Inc. (NASDAQ:BIIB) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Biogen's Debt?
As you can see below, Biogen had US$7.27b of debt, at December 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$3.80b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$3.47b.
A Look At Biogen's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Biogen had liabilities of US$4.30b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$8.62b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$3.80b in cash and US$1.96b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$7.15b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Biogen has a very large market capitalization of US$30.4b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Biogen's net debt is only 0.88 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 14.2 times over. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. The modesty of its debt load may become crucial for Biogen if management cannot prevent a repeat of the 26% cut to EBIT over the last year. When a company sees its earnings tank, it can sometimes find its relationships with its lenders turn sour. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Biogen's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Biogen generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 87% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Biogen's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered were considerably better. There's no doubt that its ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT is pretty flash. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Biogen is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. 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. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Biogen .
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.