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. As with many other companies Kellogg Company (NYSE:K) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Kellogg’s Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Kellogg had debt of US$6.68b at the end of December 2022, a reduction from US$7.13b over a year. However, it also had US$348.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$6.33b.
How Strong Is Kellogg’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Kellogg had liabilities of US$6.35b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$7.77b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$348.0m and US$1.74b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$12.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Kellogg has a huge market capitalization of US$22.1b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With net debt to EBITDA of 3.0 Kellogg has a fairly noticeable amount of debt. On the plus side, its EBIT was 8.7 times its interest expense, and its net debt to EBITDA, was quite high, at 3.0. Unfortunately, Kellogg’s EBIT flopped 18% 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. 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 Kellogg’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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Kellogg 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.
Kellogg’s EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Kellogg is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt.
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