Warren Buffett famously said, ‘Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.’ 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. Importantly, Forward Air Corporation (NASDAQ:FWRD) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. 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. 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.
What Is Forward Air’s Debt?
As you can see below, Forward Air had US$112.4m of debt at March 2021, down from US$138.3m a year prior. On the flip side, it has US$24.4m in cash leading to net debt of about US$88.0m.
A Look At Forward Air’s Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Forward Air had liabilities of US$169.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$302.0m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$24.4m as well as receivables valued at US$203.4m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$243.4m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded Forward Air shares are worth a total of US$2.61b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Forward Air has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.72. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 17.9 times the size. So we’re pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. But the bad news is that Forward Air has seen its EBIT plunge 16% in the last twelve months. We think hat kind of performance, if repeated frequently, could well lead to difficulties for the stock. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Forward Air’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward.
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 last three years, Forward Air recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 91% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we’d usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Happily, Forward Air’s impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its EBIT growth rate. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Forward Air 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. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start.