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We Think Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE:TMO) Can Stay On Top Of Its Debt

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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We note that Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. (NYSE:TMO) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Thermo Fisher Scientific

How Much Debt Does Thermo Fisher Scientific Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2023 Thermo Fisher Scientific had US$35.2b of debt, an increase on US$28.9b, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$6.15b, its net debt is less, at about US$29.1b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
debt-equity-history-analysis

How Strong Is Thermo Fisher Scientific's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Thermo Fisher Scientific had liabilities of US$14.2b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$37.4b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$6.15b as well as receivables valued at US$9.84b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$35.6b.

Since publicly traded Thermo Fisher Scientific shares are worth a very impressive total of US$190.5b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.

We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Thermo Fisher Scientific's net debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, which is a significant but still reasonable amount of leverage. But its EBIT was about 13.9 times its interest expense, implying the company isn't really paying a high cost to maintain that level of debt. Even were the low cost to prove unsustainable, that is a good sign. Shareholders should be aware that Thermo Fisher Scientific's EBIT was down 20% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. 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 Thermo Fisher Scientific's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Thermo Fisher Scientific produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 73% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Based on what we've seen Thermo Fisher Scientific is not finding it easy, given its EBIT growth rate, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. There's no doubt that its ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT is pretty flash. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Thermo Fisher Scientific's debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that Thermo Fisher Scientific is showing 1 warning sign in our investment analysis , you should know about...

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.