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. As with many other companies Norfolk Southern Corporation (NYSE:NSC) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Norfolk Southern Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Norfolk Southern had US$12.7b in debt in March 2021; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$998.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$11.7b.
How Strong Is Norfolk Southern’s Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Norfolk Southern had liabilities of US$2.25b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$21.0b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$998.0m in cash and US$944.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$21.4b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn’t so bad because Norfolk Southern is worth a massive US$66.0b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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).
Norfolk Southern’s net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.5 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 5.7 times last year. While these numbers do not alarm us, it’s worth noting that the cost of the company’s debt is having a real impact. Unfortunately, Norfolk Southern’s EBIT flopped 12% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Norfolk Southern can strengthen its balance sheet over time.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Norfolk Southern recorded free cash flow worth 52% 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.
Norfolk Southern’s struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. But on the bright side, its ability to to convert EBIT to free cash flow isn’t too shabby at all. We think that Norfolk Southern’s debt does make it a bit risky, after considering the aforementioned data points together. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. 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.