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Here's Why Martin Marietta Materials (NYSE:MLM) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We can see that Martin Marietta Materials, Inc. (NYSE:MLM) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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.

How Much Debt Does Martin Marietta Materials Carry?

As you can see below, Martin Marietta Materials had US$2.63b of debt at March 2021, down from US$3.26b a year prior. On the flip side, it has US$313.9m in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.31b.

debt-equity-history-analysisNYSE:MLM Debt to Equity History May 23rd 2021

A Look At Martin Marietta Materials' Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that Martin Marietta Materials had liabilities of US$448.8m due within a year, and liabilities of US$4.28b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$313.9m and US$571.1m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$3.85b.

Given Martin Marietta Materials has a humongous market capitalization of US$22.6b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.

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). 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).

With a debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.7, Martin Marietta Materials uses debt artfully but responsibly. And the fact that its trailing twelve months of EBIT was 8.6 times its interest expenses harmonizes with that theme. And we also note warmly that Martin Marietta Materials 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 Martin Marietta Materials can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Martin Marietta Materials produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 61% 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.

Our View

Martin Marietta Materials's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is good too. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Martin Marietta Materials takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. 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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 2 warning signs for Martin Marietta Materials you should know about.

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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. 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.

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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