The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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. As with many other companies Illinois Tool Works Inc. (NYSE:ITW) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Illinois Tool Works's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Illinois Tool Works had US$7.64b of debt, at June 2022, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$879.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$6.76b.
A Look At Illinois Tool Works' Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Illinois Tool Works had liabilities of US$4.29b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$7.99b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$879.0m and US$3.11b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$8.30b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Of course, Illinois Tool Works has a titanic market capitalization of US$60.7b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
We'd say that Illinois Tool Works's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.7), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its strong interest cover of 19.5 times, makes us even more comfortable. Notably Illinois Tool Works's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Illinois Tool Works 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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Illinois Tool Works recorded free cash flow worth 71% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Happily, Illinois Tool Works's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Illinois Tool Works takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. 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. Case in point: We've spotted 1 warning sign for Illinois Tool Works you should be aware of.
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.
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