Is This Company About to Fail?

Just months ago, the credit market was exceptionally tight. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Uncle Sam's help, almost no company that actually needed a loan was able to get one from a private lender at decent rates.

In fact, those that could get money at all were forced to pay outrageous interest for the privilege. General Electric, for instance, is paying Berkshire Hathaway 10% on its preferred shares, and GE had to sweeten the pot with warrants to get its rate that low.

And GE is a profitable industrial titan -- once the world's largest company -- which, even after its recent downgrade, still sports an impressive AA+ debt rating. When a company like that needed to dilute its shares to get a loan at double-digit rates, you know the credit market was tight. Although it was difficult and expensive, GE could borrow the cash it needed to operate. But not everyone is so lucky.

Who's the most at risk?
The credit market remains tricky. And in a tricky credit environment, companies that can't either roll over their debt, or pay their debt and operate with what they have, are in danger of going under.

But with the possible exception of law firms that handle bankruptcies, nearly every company is feeling the pain of this economic downturn. So how can you tell whether a company is struggling just like everyone else -- or about to fail?

These three signs should make you sit up and take notice:

  • A substantial amount of debt -- given this credit market, a company with significant debt that it can't pay off is a huge risk for shareholders.
  • A negative tangible book value -- which means that its total worth is tied up in its brands, its goodwill, and its ability to generate cash, leaving nothing physical to borrow against.
  • Negative earnings -- which means that it hasn't recently been able to run its business profitably.

When you put all three of those high-risk signs together, you get companies like these:

Company

Tangible Book Value
(in Millions)

TTM Net Income
(in Millions)

Total Debt
(in Millions)

Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE  )

($55,498)

($37,947)

$803,781

Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI  )

($4,540)

($603)

$3,244

Lear (NYSE: LEA  )

($1,618)

($1,102)

$4,073

Goodyear Tire & Rubber (NYSE: GT  )

($83)

($812)

$5,910

Continental Airlines (NYSE: CAL  )

($348)

($282)

$6,024

US Airways (NYSE: LCC  )

($858)

($205)

$4,526

Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK  )

($889)

($210)

$1,191

Data from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Of course, not every company that shares these traits is on the verge of failure, and I'm not suggesting that the above companies are literally about to fail. As atrocious as Sirius XM's full-year numbers look, for instance, in recent quarters it actually posted positive operating income and cash from operations for just about the first time in its history. It's not exactly healthy, but it's looking more like it may actually survive than it pretty much ever has before.

Likewise, Kodak is showing remarkable signs of life for a company voted "worst stock for 2010," and Lear may actually be benefitting from its recent exit from bankruptcy. And while Goodyear is certainly struggling during this economic downturn, part of its losses can be traced to the costs it's taking to downsize and remain competitive for the long run.

On the other hand, those three signs in combination often tell of darker days to come. Indeed, Freddie Mac is still alive only because of a massive bailout from taxpayers, and both Continental and US Airways, like far too many airlines, are no strangers to the bankruptcy court.

If a company is in debt, doesn't have enough assets to borrow against, and isn't earning profits, then it's only a matter of time before its debtholders get tired of financing its business. That's especially true now.

Buy smarter
In general, companies that hemorrhage cash, have weak balance sheets, and are drowning in debt make lousy investments. On the flip side, those that gush cash, make smart use of debt, and have solid balance sheets backing up their businesses can be tremendous companies to own.

That's especially true during times like these, when virtually every company has been knocked off its peak, and even some of the strongest ones are available at bargain-basement prices.

At Motley Fool Inside Value, we're actively scouring the market to find the solid companies whose shares have been left to rot alongside the truly damaged ones. When we find those diamonds in the rough, we share them with our members, who then have the opportunity to buy some of the world's greatest companies at bargain prices.

If you're ready to avoid the companies teetering on the edge of failure, and instead focus on those with the fundamental strength to thrive in the long run, join us at Inside Value. Simply click here to learn more or start your 30-day free trial.

This article was originally published March 10, 2009. It has been updated.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor and Inside Value team member Chuck Saletta owned shares of General Electric. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which is both a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection and an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (15)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 12:38 PM, SuperJack62 wrote:

    Mere speculation which show no useful purpose whatsoever.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 12:50 PM, topsecret10 wrote:

    Goodyear Is going down the tubes.... They are making Inferior tires ( I bought a set of premiums and had only 9 thousand miles on them and the front two tires were worn down to a TWO on a tread guage. {They have a 50,000 mile guarantee} I called Goodyear and they actually told me that this was within their guidelines !! They would only offer me a 95$ credit on the $225 tires. I had to pay the difference even though they were under full warranty. I will never buy a tire from them again..... TS

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 1:00 PM, Superdrol wrote:

    Speculators. A recent run up in a stock's price isn't a result of a 'corporate turnaround'.

    Wall Street is just a professional casino. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 2:57 PM, pancho526 wrote:

    Interesting he should comment on CAL. They are generally regarded as the healthiest legacy carrier. Which perhaps means the suck the least. CAL and AMR are the only legacy carriers to stay out of bankruptcy court since 9/11. Also CAL is the only legacy carrier to have posted a 4th qtr profit. Having knowlege of airline financials, probably if CAL fails, the entire industry would have already failed.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 4:13 PM, Fredlee009 wrote:

    The only people who thought Sirius is going to fail after Liberty saved them are a few writers from MF, a few from street.com, a few from Barrons, dailydigital, and a couple other sources that are not news sources, but bash or pumper companies. WSJ, all of them. Everyone else, like the entire planet, wasnt worried about it. Wasnt going to happen. You are literally the last to figure this out, author. Very bad try.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 6:20 PM, southernbeachguy wrote:

    What an inaccurate article, Untrue statement, "Negative earnings -- which means that it hasn't recently been able to run its business profitably' Sirus just reported that last quarter they had positive Cash Flow. Their just about to be reported 4th Qt financials will be terriffic.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2010, at 7:00 PM, smeyers120 wrote:

    You articles are nothing more that advertisments for your "services" I cannot possibly print words here that describe my feelings towards MF.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2010, at 5:44 AM, Austin77478 wrote:

    The author’s subluminally assault on Sirius is beyond pale.

  • Report this Comment On February 09, 2010, at 8:00 AM, paulbverizonnet8 wrote:

    I just wish that more insiders, any insiders for that matter, were buying SIRI, because I own a few shares.

    Giordano Bruno

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