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U.S. Xpress Enterprises (NYSE:USX) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

Simply Wall St

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Inc. (NYSE:USX) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for U.S. Xpress Enterprises

What Is U.S. Xpress Enterprises's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 U.S. Xpress Enterprises had debt of US$433.4m, up from US$390.8m in one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

NYSE:USX Historical Debt, October 24th 2019

A Look At U.S. Xpress Enterprises's Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that U.S. Xpress Enterprises had liabilities of US$296.2m due within a year, and liabilities of US$580.1m falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$3.56m in cash and US$204.7m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$668.0m.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$266.8m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet." So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, U.S. Xpress Enterprises would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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.

U.S. Xpress Enterprises's debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.6 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. On the other hand, U.S. Xpress Enterprises grew its EBIT by 28% in the last year. If it can maintain that kind of improvement, its debt load will begin to melt away like glaciers in a warming world. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if U.S. Xpress Enterprises can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, U.S. Xpress Enterprises burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

To be frank both U.S. Xpress Enterprises's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. We're quite clear that we consider U.S. Xpress Enterprises to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if U.S. Xpress Enterprises insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.