Debt ratios and pension ratios: Connecting the dots between them

A company with too much debt is like a tall vase with a narrow base. Everything looks fine until you kick the table, at which point it falls over and shatter into thousands of pieces.

In an attempt to avoid companies that might explode, I always look for those with “prudent” amounts of debt. At the same time, I try not to be so restrictive that I can’t find anything to invest in.

Avoiding companies with too much debt

Over the years, I’ve defined “prudent” in several different ways, but my current rules of thumb for interest-bearing debts are:

  • Only invest in a defensive sector company if its Debt Ratio is less than 5
  • Only invest in a cyclical sector company if its Debt Ratio is less than 4 (this doesn’t apply to banks)

The Debt Ratio, for reference, is the ratio between the company’s current total borrowings and its 5-year average post-tax profit (preferably normalised or adjusted profits).

There is no magic to this; it’s just an approach that I’ve found to be reasonably good at differentiating between companies that are going to run into trouble because of their debts, and those that aren’t (I think I first read it in “Buffettology”, a book I highly recommend).

Another financial obligation I’ve kept an eye on for the last few years is defined benefit pension schemes. Many companies don’t have one, but if a company does have one then in most cases (possibly all) it is legally obliged to ensure the pension scheme is well funded.

If the pension scheme’s assets do not cover its long-term liabilities, the scheme will have a pension deficit and the company will have a legal obligation to close that deficit at some point. That will often mean shovelling cash into the fund, which means less cash for dividends or other things that create shareholder value.

Avoiding companies with excessively large pension obligations

I have a rule of thumb for pension obligations as well, just because I like to systemise my decision-making as much as possible. The rule is:

  • Only invest in a company if its Pension Ratio is less than 10

The Pension Ratio is more or less the same as the Debt Ratio, only this time the company’s total defined benefit pension obligations are compared to its 5-year average post-tax profit.

So far I’ve always looked at the Debt and Pension Ratios separately; I guess because I never thought about joining the dots, and because I haven’t seen anyone else look at debt and pension liabilities as two sides of the same coin.

But last week, when I was reviewing my latest sell decision (June was a “sell” month for me), I noticed that the company in question (Serco, which I’ll write about soon) had both high levels of debt and a relatively large pension obligation.

Specifically, Serco had a Debt Ratio of 5.2, which is too high according to my rules of thumb (Serco is in a cyclical sector and should have, by my rules, a Debt Ratio below 4).

That alone would be enough to make me avoid buying the company, although not enough to make me sell it.

It also had a Pension Ratio of 8.2, which is okay according to my Pension Ratio rule of thumb, but it’s pretty close to the limit of 10.

That got me thinking. What if Serco had a slightly lower Debt Ratio? What if its Debt Ratio was 3.8 and its Pension Ratio was 8.2?

That would be “okay” according to my rules of thumb, but is that a sensible outcome?

Treating debt and pension obligations as interdependent risks

If a company carries interest-bearing debts then it will need to use cash to pay the interest on those debts. On the other hand, if a company has a large pension obligation then it either has, or could potentially have a large pension deficit, and that would also require large amounts of cash to clear.

Since there is only so much cash to go around, I think it’s sensible to look at these two financial obligations together, rather than in isolation.

I don’t have some magical answer that will tell me exactly what a prudent amount of debt is for a company with a particular pension liability, or vice versa. However, I can take a reasonable guess, and refine it from there with experience.

So my first stab at a rule of thumb which treats debt and pension obligations as if they impacted one another (because they do) is this:

  • Only invest in a company if the sum of its Debt and Pension Ratios is less than 10

It isn’t rocket science, but I think it’s a good place to start.

If, for example, a company has “medium” levels of debt, with a Debt Ratio of perhaps 3, then I would buy it (after a detailed analysis, of course) only if its Pension Ratio was below 7. Or, if a company has a Pension Ratio of 8, then I would only buy it if its Debt Ratio is below 2.

I think that should give me a fair balance between ruling out companies with excessive obligations, without being so restrictive as to rule out companies that are perfectly capable of handling their current situation.

Of course, you may or may not use the same ratios as I do, but even if you don’t, I think treating debt and pension obligations as interdependent risks is still a sensible thing to do.

Author: John Kingham

I cover both the theory and practice of investing in high-quality UK dividend stocks for long-term income and growth.

6 thoughts on “Debt ratios and pension ratios: Connecting the dots between them”

  1. First of all, love the start of the article, John: “A company with too much debt is like a tall vase with a narrow base. Everything looks fine until you kick the table, at which point it falls over and explodes into thousands of pieces.”

    I think that sounds a very good way of creating a way of easily assessing companies according to both metrics. You’re certainly right to consider them as interdependent. Would you distinguish between defensive and cyclical companies though? Maybe a Pension and Debt ratio of 12 for the defensive and 10 for the cyclical companies?

    1. Hi DD

      I’m not going to adjust the Pension Ratio depending on whether the company is in a defensive or cyclical sector because I don’t have any data or experience that says that’s necessarily worth doing, and I prefer to leave any tweaking until I have concrete evidence that it’s worth doing.

      Wtih the Debt Ratio though I did have that evidence. In the last year or so I’ve seen a few of my cyclical holdings come under pressure, partly from their debt burdens. Looking at the data I could see that the Debt “cut-off” point needed to be a bit lower, so I moved it down from 5 to 4.

      I’ll tweak that again if need be, and anything else, including the Pension Ratio. But only when I can see that somethings actually needs fixing, and that the change will be beneficial (i.e. if it ain’t broke…)

  2. There is an additional linkage in that pension fund deficit calculations are based on a market derived discount rate (looking back in the mists of time, is it a AA credit?), so would be potentially reduced in a bond market sell off as you discussed in a previous post. I doubt that wd be sufficient to save an overlevered company of course.

    1. Hi Monty, yes a very interesting point. Hopefully limiting the size of the overall pension obligation would cover that, but an interesting point all the same.

      Interest rates do of course impact what sensible maximum debt and pension obligations are, but hopefully my ratio limits are reasonably suitable for both high and low rate environments, although only time will tell.

  3. John: a very sensible metric to add. In third from last paragraph, I beleve “would” should be “would not.”


    1. Hi Juan,

      I think that there are many interdependent factors that investors tend to view in isolation. I guess it would be possible to come up with elaborate “rules” that timed them all together, but it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to verify and quantify all the relationships.

      However, I think debt and pension ratios are more obviously interdependent than most, and this fairly simple rule seems to capture the spirit of my thinking, although it may require tweaking over time.

      And thanks for the typo warning. I’ve changed that paragraph to remove the error.


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