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. So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that Zebra Technologies Corporation (NASDAQ:ZBRA) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. 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 think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Zebra Technologies’s Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Zebra Technologies had US$1.29b of debt in December 2019, down from US$1.59b, one year before. However, it does have US$30.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.26b.
How Healthy Is Zebra Technologies’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Zebra Technologies had liabilities of US$1.40b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.47b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$30.0m as well as receivables valued at US$653.0m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$2.19b.
Of course, Zebra Technologies has a titanic market capitalization of US$12.0b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. Having said that, it’s clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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).
Zebra Technologies has net debt of just 1.4 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 8.4 times the interest expense over the last year. And we also note warmly that Zebra Technologies grew its EBIT by 13% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. 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 Zebra Technologies 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.
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. Happily for any shareholders, Zebra Technologies actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There’s nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders’ good graces.
Zebra Technologies’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14’s goalkeeper. And its interest cover is good too. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Zebra Technologies’s use of debt seems quite reasonable and we’re not concerned about it. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Consider for instance, the ever-present spectre of investment risk. We’ve identified 1 warning sign with Zebra Technologies , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don’t even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.
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