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. Importantly, CSX Corporation (NASDAQ:CSX) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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 CSX's Net Debt?
As you can see below, CSX had US$16.3b of debt, at March 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$2.96b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$13.3b.
How Strong Is CSX's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that CSX had liabilities of US$1.80b due within a year, and liabilities of US$24.7b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$2.96b in cash and US$957.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$22.6b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because CSX is worth a massive US$72.6b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
CSX has net debt worth 2.3 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 5.9 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. The bad news is that CSX saw its EBIT decline by 13% over the last year. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. 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 CSX'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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, CSX recorded free cash flow worth 63% 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.
CSX's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is relatively strong. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that CSX is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with CSX , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
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