Friday, 24 April 2009

Assessing indebtedness. How much debt is too much?


Leverage and debt assessments are perpetually subjective and are discussed continuously by financial and credit analysts. Some debt is usually regarded as a good thing, for it expands the size of the business and hence the return on owner capital/equity. But too much is too much. Where do you draw the line?

Guiding principles include comparative analysis and vulnerability to downturns. Debt must always be paid back, whether business is good or not - so debt stops being okay when it's too large to cover during a downturn or business strategy change.

Here are a couple of supporting metrics:

Debt to equity

This old standard is common used to get a feel for indebtedness, particularly in comparison with the rest of an industry.

D/E = Total long-term debt / Equity

A company with only $300,000 in long-term debt beyond the portion currently due, against $653 million in equity is virtually debt-free. Such a debt to equity ratio well below 1% is healthy, and so it is for most businesses too. But business analysts may wonder if the company could produce a greater return by borrowing and putting more assets in play. Evidently management has decided that it isn't worth it, so hasn't. That's a better decision than borrowing funds to make the wrong investments.

The investor is left to agree or disagree with management's judgment, but debt-free companies - just like debt-free consumers - come out ahead more often.

Interest coverage

Interest coverage is the ratio of earnings to annual interest, a rough indication of how solvent or burdened a company is by debt.

Interest coverage = Earnings / Annual interest

One way to look at whether a business has the right amount of debt is to look at how much of its earnings are consumed to pay interest on it. (Prudent to keep annual interest less than 20% of earnings.)

When looking at interest coverage, a good question to ask is this: What happens to coverage if, say, business (sales) drops 20%, as in a deep recession?

No comments: