Here's Why Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings (NYSE:LH) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings -0.72%

Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings

LH

205.34

-0.72%

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings (NYSE:LH) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings

What Is Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings's Debt?

As you can see below, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings had US$5.51b of debt, at September 2023, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$727.9m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$4.79b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:LH Debt to Equity History January 30th 2024

How Strong Is Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings' Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings had liabilities of US$2.90b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$6.09b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$727.9m in cash and US$2.07b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$6.20b.

Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings has a very large market capitalization of US$19.1b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.

In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings's net debt of 2.2 times EBITDA suggests graceful use of debt. And the alluring interest cover (EBIT of 8.9 times interest expense) certainly does not do anything to dispel this impression. Shareholders should be aware that Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings's EBIT was down 29% last year. If that earnings trend continues then paying off its debt will be about as easy as herding cats on to a roller coaster. 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 Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings'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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings recorded free cash flow worth 68% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Based on what we've seen Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings is not finding it easy, given its EBIT growth rate, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. In particular, we are dazzled with its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. It's also worth noting that Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings is in the Healthcare industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings's use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings is showing 3 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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