While evaluating a company to invest, one of the biggest element to check is its debt level. Ideally, it is said to look for a company with Zero-debt as it means that the company is able to manage its finances predominantly through internally generated cash without any external obligations.
However, is debt always bad for a company? Should you ignore a stock just because it has some debt. Moreover, what if the debt level increases after you invest in a stock? Should you exit that company because the company is adding debts?
In this post, we are going to answer these questions and discuss whether debt is always bad for a company or NOT. Let’s get started.
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How a company finances its debt?
A company can raise debt either by issuing debt securities like bonds, notes, corporate papers etc or by simply borrowing money as loans from banks or any lending institutions. However, once the company has taken a debt, it is legally obliged to pay it back based on the terms agreed by the lenders and lendee.
In general, if a company is currently debt free and later starts taking some debt, it might be good for the business as the company can invest that money in expanding its business. However, the problem arises when the company which already has a big debt in its balance sheet, decides to add more. This increasing debt level can negatively affect the shareholders as by norms, debts are to be paid first by the company and shareholders will always be the last in line to receive profits.
When debt is not bad for business?
Although a few matrices like declining profit margins or negative cash flow from operating activities for a consistently long period is considered as a bad sign for a business. However, the same is not true in the case of debts. The debt is not always bad for business.
If a company has a low debt level and decides to take a new debt to start a project which may double or quadruple their revenue, this debt may be good for the business and add more value to the investors in the long run. However, an important question to ask here is whether the company can afford the debt at that point in time. If yes, then it may not be a point of concern for the company or you as a shareholder.
To check whether the company can repay the debt or not, you can look at the free cash flow (FCF) of the company. As a rule of thumb, if the company’s long-term debt is less than three times the average FCF, it means that the company will able to repay its debt within three years using its free cash flow. Of the other hand, consistently negative free cash flow with increasing debt level can be a warning sign for the investors.
Quick note: Also check out this post by Harvard business review on When Is Debt Good?
Debt is cheaper than equity
For growing a business, the management may decide to raise money from investors (equity funding) or they may borrow money from banks as debts. However, an important concept to understand here is that debt is cheaper than equity.
In other words, equity is a comparatively expensive method of financing for a company. Why? Because, first of all, raising money by equity dilutes the ownership and control of the promoters. Second, the cost of equity is not finite. Here, the investors may be expecting bigger returns as they are taking higher risks.
On the other hand, the cost of debt is finite and they are sourced at lower rates. This is because the debt is less risky financing as the firm is obligated to pay it back (unlike equity funding where the company is not obliged to pay any dividends to the shareholders). Moreover, the company has no obligation to the lenders once the debt is paid off.
Further, debt financing doesn’t result in any dilution and change in control. Here, the lenders take no part in the equity of the company and hence the promoters and shareholders can enjoy the benefits.
How to evaluate the debt of a company?
Although checking the liability side of a balance sheet is always the first step to evaluate the debt of a company. However, there are a few financial ratios that you can use to evaluate the debt level. Here are the three most frequently used financial ratios to evaluate the debt of a company:
1. Current Ratio
This ratio tells you the ability of a company to pay its short-term liabilities with short-term assets. Current ratio can be calculated as: Current ratio = (Current assets / current liabilities)
While investing, companies with a current ratio greater than 1 should be preferred. This means that the current assets should be greater than the current liabilities of a company.
2. Quick ratio
This is also called the acid test ratio. Current ratio takes accounts of the assets that can pay the debt for the short term. It doesn’t consider inventory as current assets as it assumes that selling inventory will take some time and hence cannot meet the current liabilities.
Quick ratio = (Current assets — Inventory) / current liabilities
A company with a quick ratio greater that one means that it can easily meet its short-term obligations and hence quick ratio greater than 1 should be preferred while investing.
3. Debt/equity ratio
This ratio is used to check how much capital amount is borrowed (debt) vs that of contributed by the shareholders (equity) in a company. As a thumb rule, prefer companies with debt to equity ratio less than 0.5 while investing.
Contrary to the general belief, debts are not always bad for a company but can help it to speed up the growth. Moreover, debts are a more affordable and effective method of financing a business when it needs cash to scale up. The problem arises only when the management does not control its debt level efficiently.