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. It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. We note that Illinois Tool Works Inc. (NYSE:ITW) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Illinois Tool Works's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 Illinois Tool Works had US$7.81b of debt, an increase on US$7.42b, over one year. However, it also had US$1.68b in cash, and so its net debt is US$6.13b.
How Healthy Is Illinois Tool Works's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Illinois Tool Works had liabilities of US$2.19b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$9.90b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.68b as well as receivables valued at US$2.63b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$7.79b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Since publicly traded Illinois Tool Works shares are worth a very impressive total of US$47.4b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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.
Illinois Tool Works's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 1.6 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its strong interest cover of 16.6 times, makes us even more comfortable. On the other hand, Illinois Tool Works saw its EBIT drop by 2.8% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue to decline at that rate the company may have increasing difficulty managing its debt load. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Illinois Tool Works'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.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Illinois Tool Works produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 67% 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.
The good news is that Illinois Tool Works's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its EBIT growth rate does undermine this impression a bit. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Illinois Tool Works can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Illinois Tool Works's earnings per share history for free.
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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