July 14, 2024

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 Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. 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.
Check out our latest analysis for Pfizer
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Pfizer had US$40.5b in debt in July 2022; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$33.3b, its net debt is less, at about US$7.18b.
According to the last reported balance sheet, Pfizer had liabilities of US$47.4b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$60.4b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$33.3b as well as receivables valued at US$17.7b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$56.8b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn't so bad because Pfizer is worth a massive US$247.8b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Pfizer has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.16. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 37.8 times over. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Better yet, Pfizer grew its EBIT by 162% last year, which is an impressive improvement. That boost will make it even easier to pay down debt going forward. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Pfizer's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Pfizer actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
The good news is that Pfizer's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is also very heartening. Considering this range of factors, it seems to us that Pfizer is quite prudent with its debt, and the risks seem well managed. So we're not worried about the use of a little leverage on the balance sheet. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet – far from it. For example, we've discovered 1 warning sign for Pfizer that you should be aware of before investing here.
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.
Find out whether Pfizer is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.
Simply Wall St's Editorial Team provides unbiased, factual reporting on global stocks using in-depth fundamental analysis.
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Pfizer Inc. discovers, develops, manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells biopharmaceutical products worldwide.
The Snowflake is a visual investment summary with the score of each axis being calculated by 6 checks in 5 areas.
Read more about these checks in the individual report sections or in our analysis model.
Very undervalued with outstanding track record and pays a dividend.
Simply Wall St's Editorial Team provides unbiased, factual reporting on global stocks using in-depth fundamental analysis.
Find out more about our editorial guidelines and team.
Pfizer Inc. discovers, develops, manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells biopharmaceutical products worldwide.
The Snowflake is a visual investment summary with the score of each axis being calculated by 6 checks in 5 areas.
Read more about these checks in the individual report sections or in our analysis model.
Very undervalued with outstanding track record and pays a dividend.
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