Few people seem to spot the early signs of a company in distress. Remember WorldCom and Enron? Not long ago, these companies were worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Today, they no longer exist. Their collapses came as a surprise to most of the world, including their investors. Even large shareholders, many of them with an inside track, were caught off guard.

This doesn't mean it's impossible to see a corporate train wreck before it happens. Sure, it involves some work, but by digging into a company's activities and financial statements, even the average investor can identify potential problems. Here are some general guidelines for spotting companies that may be headed for trouble. (To find out which financial instruments will protect you from bear market volatility, read Taking The Bite Out Of A Bear Market.)

Cash Flows

Keeping a close eye on cash flow, which is a company's life line, can guard against holding a worthless share certificate. When a company's cash payments exceed its cash receipts, the company's cash flow is negative. If this occurs over a sustained period, it's a sign that cash in the bank may become dangerously low. Without fresh injections of capital from shareholders or lenders, a company in this situation can quickly find itself insolvent. (For more insight, see The Essentials Of Cash Flow.)

Bear in mind that even profitable companies can have negative cash flows and find themselves in trouble. This can happen, for example, when a rapidly growing business with strong sales makes large investments in stock, staff and manufacturing plants. At best, there will be a delay between when the company forks out cash for these business costs and when it collects cash from resulting sales. But this delay can severely stretch cash flow. At worst, the sales growth cannot be sustained, and large quantities of stock (and staff) end up idly sitting in warehouses, causing a devastating impact on cash flow. Either way, you should steer clear of companies that report both profits and negative operating cash flows period after period.

In addition, you should examine the company's cash burn rate. If a company burns cash too quickly, it runs the risk of going out of business. Enron's cash flow fell from negative $90 million in Q1 2000 to a very troubling negative $457 million a year later. Any questions? (For more details on this measure of cash, check out the article Don't Get Burned By The Burn Rate.)

Debt Levels
Interest repayments place pressure on cash flow, and this pressure is likely to be exacerbated for distressed companies. Because they have a higher risk of default, struggling companies must pay a higher interest rate to borrow money. As a result, debt tends to shrink their returns. (For more on corporate debt, see Evaluating A Company's Capital Structure.)

The total debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio is a useful measure of bankruptcy risk. It compares a company's combined long- and short-term debt to shareholders' equity or book value. High-debt companies have higher D/E ratios than companies with low debt. According to debt specialists, companies with D/E ratios below 0.5 carry low debt. And that means that conservative investors will give companies with D/E ratios of 0.5 and above a closer look.

Let's consider Enron's debt-to-equity levels before it declared bankruptcy in December 2001. At year-end December 2000, its D/E ratio stood at 0.9. At June 2001, it grew to 1.1. Finally, its September 2001 quarterly report showed a D/E ratio of 1.4. Enron would have qualified as a risky debt prospect each time.

At the same time, the D/E ratio doesn't always say much on its own. It should be accompanied by an examination of the debt interest coverage ratio. For example, suppose that a company had a D/E ratio of 0.75, which signals a low bankruptcy risk, but that it also had an interest coverage ratio of 0.5. An interest coverage ratio below 1 means that the company is not able to meet all of its debt obligations with the period's earnings before interest and tax (operating income), and it's a sign that a company is having difficulty meeting its debt obligations.

Share Price Decline
The savvy investor should also watch out for unusual share price declines. Almost all corporate collapses are preceded by a sustained share price decline. Enron's share price started falling 16 months before it went bust. The same holds true for WorldCom.

A big share price decline might signal trouble ahead, but it may also signal a valuable opportunity to buy an out-of-favor business with solid fundamentals. Knowing the difference between a company on the verge of collapse and one that's undervalued isn't always straightforward. Looking at the other factors we discuss below can help you tell them apart.

Profit Warnings
Investors should take profit warnings very, very seriously. While market reaction to a profit warning may appear swift and brutal, there is growing academic evidence to suggest that the market systematically under-reacts to bad news. As a result, a profit warning is often followed by a gradual share price decline.

Insider Trading
Companies are required to report, by way of company announcement, purchases and sales of shares by substantial shareholders and company directors. Executives and directors have the most up-to-date information on their company's prospects, so heavy selling by one or both groups can be a sign of trouble ahead. While recommending that investors buy his company's stock, Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay sold $123 million in shares in 2000. That was nearly three times his gains in 1999, and nearly 10 times what he made in 1998. Admittedly, insiders don't always sell simply because they think their shares are about to sink in value, but insider selling should give investors pause. (To learn more, read Uncovering Insider Trading.)

The sudden departure of key executives (or directors) can also signal bad news. While these resignations may be completely innocent, they demand closer inspection. Warning bells should ring the loudest when the individual concerned has a reputation as a successful manager or a strong, independent director.

You should also be wary of the resignation or replacement of auditors. Naturally, auditors tend to jump ship at the first sign of corporate distress or impropriety. Auditor replacement can also mean a deteriorating relationship between the auditor and the client company, and perhaps more fundamental difficulties within the client company's business.

SEC Investigations
Formal investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) normally precede corporate collapses. That's not surprising; many companies guilty of breaking SEC and accounting rules do so because they are facing financial difficulties. Unfortunately for most Enron and WorldCom investors, the SEC didn't spot problems in these companies before it was too late. However, the SEC has a pretty good nose for detecting corporate and financial misdeeds. While many SEC investigations turn out to be unfounded, they still give investors good reason to pay closer attention to the financial situations of companies that are targeted by the SEC. (For more insight, see SEC Filings: Forms You Need To Know.)

Just as a seriously ill person can make a full recovery and go on to lead a fulfilling life while a seemingly healthy person can drop dead without warning, some very sick companies can make miraculous recoveries while apparently thriving ones can collapse overnight. But the probability of this is very low. Typically, when a company is struggling, the warning signs are there. Your best line of defense as an investor is to be informed - ask questions, do your research and be alert to unusual activities. Make it your business to know a company's business and you'll minimize your chances of getting caught in a corporate train wreck.

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