Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, ‘The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about… and every practical investor I know worries about.’ 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 Oshkosh Corporation (NYSE:OSK) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can’t fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth 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 Oshkosh’s Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2023 Oshkosh had US$1.10b of debt, an increase on US$604.2m, over one year. However, it also had US$106.1m in cash, and so its net debt is US$996.4m.
A Look At Oshkosh’s Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Oshkosh had liabilities of US$3.09b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$2.22b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$106.1m in cash and US$2.28b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$2.92b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn’t so bad because Oshkosh is worth US$6.39b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it’s clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). 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).
Oshkosh has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.0. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 19.3 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Even more impressive was the fact that Oshkosh grew its EBIT by 190% over twelve months. That boost will make it even easier to pay down debt going forward. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Oshkosh’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs 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, Oshkosh recorded free cash flow worth 63% 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.
The good news is that Oshkosh’s demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its level of total liabilities does undermine this impression a bit. Zooming out, Oshkosh seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us.