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 HCA Healthcare, Inc. (NYSE:HCA) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does HCA Healthcare Carry?
As you can see below, HCA Healthcare had US$30.6b of debt at March 2021, down from US$34.9b a year prior. However, it does have US$1.14b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$29.5b.NYSE:HCA Debt to Equity History July 20th 2021
How Strong Is HCA Healthcare's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that HCA Healthcare had liabilities of US$8.64b due within a year, and liabilities of US$36.2b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$1.14b in cash and US$7.42b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$36.2b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because HCA Healthcare is worth a massive US$72.0b, 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
HCA Healthcare's debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 5.2 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. If HCA Healthcare can keep growing EBIT at last year's rate of 17% over the last year, then it will find its debt load easier to manage. 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 HCA Healthcare 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, HCA Healthcare 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.
Both HCA Healthcare's ability to to grow its EBIT and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. On the other hand, its net debt to EBITDA makes us a little less comfortable about its debt. It's also worth noting that HCA Healthcare is in the Healthcare industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that HCA Healthcare is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with HCA Healthcare , 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.
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.
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