Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 note that Biogen Inc. (NASDAQ:BIIB) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Biogen's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2023 Biogen had debt of US$7.29b, up from US$6.28b in one year. However, it also had US$2.29b in cash, and so its net debt is US$5.00b.
How Strong Is Biogen's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Biogen had liabilities of US$5.02b due within a year, and liabilities of US$8.69b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.29b and US$2.63b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$8.79b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because Biogen is worth a massive US$32.6b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up 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.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Biogen's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 2.0 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its strong interest cover of 1k times, makes us even more comfortable. Importantly, Biogen's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 30% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. 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 Biogen 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Biogen produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 70% 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.
Biogen's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered were considerably better. In particular, we are dazzled with its interest cover. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Biogen's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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. For example, we've discovered 2 warning signs for Biogen that you should be aware of before investing here.
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.
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.
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.