The online financial newsletter StreetAuthority has published a list of 12 companies that are at risk because of a looming debt problem.
Among them is Thomson Reuters who, among other things, run the Web of Science database and provide the data for the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Their data is also used by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's rankings to construct their Highly Cited Researchers and Publications indicators.
Thomson Reuters will not of course go bankrupt tomorrow. But if they are in trouble, then there could be implications for international university rankings.
During the past generation, a reasonable level of debt has always been seen as appropriate, because balance sheets were able to withstand a typical recession. Yet all that changed in 2008. GM's (NYSE: GM) debt load crashed the company, forcing it into bankruptcy, while many other companies such as GE (NYSE: GE), Ford Motor (NYSE: F), Hertz (NYSE: HTZ) and Domino's Pizza (NYSE: DPZ) saw their stocks plunge on fears a bankruptcy filing would be necessary if economic conditions worsened.
Thankfully, many companies wised up and have been taking steps to strengthen their balance sheets. But not everyone got the message. Some companies still carry too much debt and might run into trouble if the U.S. economy slips back into recession. These companies will need to make large payments to handle their debt, and right now they are at risk of not having enough cash to meet potential obligations. Typically, a company can simply roll over that debt and push out the time frame when debts come due. But a weak economy would make this task much harder as lenders grow skittish.
That's why it's so important to pay attention to balance sheets. Lots of debt is only a problem if the debts are soon coming due. For example, mattress maker Sealy Corp. (NYSE: ZZ) has a very weak balance sheet, with almost $800 million in debt and less than $100 million in cash. But management wisely rolled over its debt while it could, and now the company faces no major repayments until 2014.
But if a company's "current portion of long-term debt" -- that is, debts due within the next 12 months -- exceeds cash on hand, you need to listen to how management plans to address the problem because these companies could be at risk of failing. I went in search of companies that may have just such a problem (less cash than near-term loan obligations). I also added Canadian media firm Thomson Reuters (NYSE: TRI) to the mix because its weak balance sheet is just above that threshold. The table below highlights a group of companies that are at risk of having to declare bankruptcy in 2012 if their lenders are in no mood to extend them more loans.