($ in millions)
Total Current Liabilities
Deferred Income Tax
Wednesday, 28 March 2018
LONG-TERM DEBT: Something that great companies don't have a lot of
LONG-TERM DEBT: SOMETHING THAT GREAT COMPANIES
DON'T HAVE A LOT OF
Long-term debt means debt that matures any time out past a year. On the balance sheet it comes under the heading of long-term liabilities. If the debt comes due within the year, it is short-term debt and is placed with the company's current liabilities. In Warren's search for the excellent business with a long-term competitive advantage, the amount of long-term debt a company carries on its books tells him a lot about the economic nature of the business.
Warren has learned that companies that have a durable competitive advantage often carry little or no long-term debt on their balance sheets. This is because these companies are so profitable that they are self-financing when they need to expand the business or make acquisitions, so there is never a need to borrow large sums of money.
One of the ways to help us identify the exceptional business, then, is to check how much long-term debt it is carrying on its balance sheet. We are not just interested in the current year; we want to look at the long-term debt load that the company has been carrying for the last ten years. If there have been ten years of operations with little or no long-term debt on the company's balance sheet it is a good bet that the company has some kind of strong competitive advantage working in its favor.
Warren's historic purchases indicate that on any given year the company should have sufficient yearly net earnings to pay off all of its long-term debt within a three-or four-year earnings period. Long-term competitive advantage holders Coca-Cola and Moody's could pay off all their long-term debt in a single year; and Wrigley and The Washington Post companies can do it in two.
But companies like GM or Ford, both in the highly competitive auto industry, could spend every dime of net profit they have earned in the last ten years and still not pay off the massive amount of long-term debt they carry on their balance sheets.
The bottom line here is that companies that have enough earning power to pay off their long-term debt in under three or four years are good candidates in our search for the excellent business with a long-term competitive advantage.
But please note: Because these companies are so profitable and carrying little or no debt, they are often the targets of leveraged buyouts. This is where the buyer borrows huge amounts of money against the cash flow of the company to finance the purchase. After the leveraged buyout the business is then saddled with large amounts of debt. This was the case with the RJR/Nabisco buyout in the late 1980s.
If all else indicates that the business in question is a company with a durable competitive advantage, but it has a ton of debt on its balance sheet, a leveraged buyout may have created the debt. In cases like these the company's bonds are often the better bet, in that the company's earning power will be focused on paying off the debt and not growing the company.
The rule here is simple: Little or No Long-Term Debt Often Means a Good Long-Term Bet.