A financial health check up for the S&P 500

medical

Debt: The Best Measure of Risk

One of my core beliefs as an investor is that debt is the best measure of risk.

Academic attempts to define risk as the volatility of a stock price are ridiculous. Risk is the possibility of a permanent loss of capital. The risk that a company will go out of business is heightened through the use of leverage.

There is no perfect measure of risk, but I think that debt levels give the clearest signals about the risk of an investment. A company without debt can withstand incredible business problems, while a company in deep debt won’t be able to survive the slightest shake-up.

Debt levels are one of my chief concerns when I purchase a stock.

As a deep value investor, I focus on firms that are going through a tough time in their business or sector. Because they are going through difficulty, it is paramount that balance sheet risk is low. If they have a healthy balance sheet, then they will be able to survive whatever trouble they are mired in.

I try to find the firms that are still profitable and are still in a strong financial position so they can survive the temporary business setback.

Corporate debt at all-time highs!

Due to my views on the subject, I was alarmed when I read several articles indicating that debt is rising to all-time highs within the S&P 500. High leverage levels were one of the driving forces behind the crisis of 2008.

The narrative of the corporate debt scare articles goes like this: (1) the Fed made debt too cheap after the crisis, (2) companies are taking advantage of it and spending it on frivolous activities like buying back shares, (3) corporate debt is now at all-time highs and will trigger a severe credit contraction in the future.

The headlines are usually along the lines of “corporate debt is at all-time highs!”

Well . . . based on inflation alone, corporate debt should regularly hit all-time highs in raw dollar terms. Looking at the total dollar volume of debt issuance doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Real Story

What, then, is the best way to measure the debt risks to corporate America? Many like interest coverage ratios . . . but I don’t like this, as interest rates can change on a dime for the better or the worse. I look at total debt relative to earnings and assets.

When I assembled the data, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the situation is actually not that bad. Corporate America is financially healthy. Despite record low interest rates, corporate America hasn’t gone on a debt binge. Quite the opposite. They have been deleveraging since the crisis.

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This suggests that if we do fall into a recession, it won’t be the painful credit crunch we endured in 2008. Even though interest rates are at historic lows, corporate America is not taking the bait.

This also explains why the Fed has been able to keep interest rates near all-time lows. Few companies are actually taking advantage of the low rates.

Financial journalism is in the business of creating sensational click-bait headlines. They aren’t particularly useful. This is why individual investors need to do their own homework and think independently.

I think low corporate debt is also is a major reason that the economy isn’t growing more than 2% even though interest rates are rock bottom.

While it means less growth for the economy, it also means less risk for corporate America. That’s a good thing.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

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