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 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 can see that Corning Incorporated (NYSE:GLW) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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 step when considering a company’s debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Corning’s Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Corning had debt of US$7.38b at the end of June 2021, a reduction from US$7.81b over a year. However, it does have US$2.32b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$5.06b.
How Healthy Is Corning’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Corning had liabilities of US$4.62b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$13.0b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$2.32b as well as receivables valued at US$2.06b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$13.3b.
Corning has a very large market capitalization of US$32.7b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Corning has net debt of just 1.4 times EBITDA, indicating that it is certainly not a reckless borrower. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 7.4 times the interest expense over the last year. On top of that, Corning grew its EBIT by 80% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Corning’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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Corning recorded free cash flow of 48% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we’d expect. That’s not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
The good news is that Corning’s demonstrated ability to grow its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And its interest cover is good too. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Corning can handle its debt fairly comfortably. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it’s worth keeping an eye on this one. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start.