Merck (NYSE:MRK) Has A Pretty Healthy Balance Sheet

By
Simply Wall St
Published
January 20, 2022
NYSE:MRK
Source: Shutterstock

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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 Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Merck

How Much Debt Does Merck Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Merck had US$26.4b of debt in September 2021, down from US$28.7b, one year before. On the flip side, it has US$10.0b in cash leading to net debt of about US$16.4b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:MRK Debt to Equity History January 20th 2022

How Healthy Is Merck's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Merck had liabilities of US$23.7b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$33.9b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$10.0b in cash and US$10.6b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$37.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Since publicly traded Merck shares are worth a very impressive total of US$205.3b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Merck has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.78. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 23.2 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. In addition to that, we're happy to report that Merck has boosted its EBIT by 42%, thus reducing the spectre of future debt repayments. 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 Merck'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Merck recorded free cash flow worth 53% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Happily, Merck's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its EBIT growth rate is also very heartening. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Merck's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. 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. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Merck .

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.

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