What Is a Coverage Ratio?

A coverage ratio, broadly, is a group of measures of a company's ability to service its debt and meet its financial obligations such as interests payments or dividends. The higher the coverage ratio, the easier it should be to make interest payments on its debt or pay dividends. The trend of coverage ratios over time is also studied by analysts and investors to ascertain the change in a company's financial position.

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Coverage Ratio

What Does a Coverage Ratio Tell You?

Coverage ratios come in several forms and can be used to help identify companies in a potentially troubled financial situation, though low ratios are not necessarily an indication that a company is in financial difficulty. Many factors go into determining these ratios and a deeper dive into a company's financial statements is often recommended to ascertain a business's health.

Net income, interest expense, debt outstanding, and total assets are just a few examples of the financial statement items that should be examined. To ascertain whether the company is still a going concern, one should look at liquidity and solvency ratios, which assess a company's ability to pay short-term debt (i.e., convert assets into cash).

Investors can use coverage ratios in one of two ways. First, you can track changes in the company’s debt situation over time. In cases where the debt-service coverage ratio is barely within the acceptable range, it may be a good idea to look at the company’s recent history. If the ratio has been gradually declining, it may only be a matter of time before it falls below the recommended figure.

Coverage ratios are also valuable when looking at a company in relation to its competitors. Evaluating similar businesses is imperative, because an interest coverage ratio that’s acceptable in one industry may be considered risky in another field. If the business you’re evaluating seems out of step with major competitors, it’s often a red flag.

While comparing the coverage ratios of companies in the same industry or sector can provide valuable insights into their relative financial positions, doing so across companies in different sectors is not as useful, since it might be like to comparing apples and oranges. Common coverage ratios include the interest coverage ratio, debt service coverage ratio and the asset coverage ratio. These coverage ratios are summarized below.

Key Takeaways

  • Coverage ratios come in several forms and can be used to help identify companies in a potentially troubled financial situation.
  • A coverage ratio, broadly, is a measure of a company's ability to service its debt and meet its financial obligations. The higher the coverage ratio, the easier it should be to make interest payments on its debt or pay dividends.
  • Common coverage ratios include the interest coverage ratio, debt service coverage ratio, and asset coverage ratio.

Types of Coverage Ratios

Interest Coverage Ratio

The interest coverage ratio measures the ability of a company to pay the interest expense on its debt. The ratio, also known as the times interest earned ratio, is defined as a company's earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT), divided by interest expense. An interest coverage ratio of two or higher is generally considered satisfactory.

Debt Service Coverage Ratio

The debt service coverage ratio (DSCR) measures how well a company is able to pay its entire debt service. Debt service includes all principal and interest payments due to be made in the near term. The ratio is defined as net operating income divided by total debt service. A ratio of one or above is indicative that a company generates sufficient earnings to completely cover its debt obligations.

Asset Coverage Ratio

The asset coverage ratio is similar in nature to the debt service coverage ratio but looks at balance sheet assets instead of comparing income to debt levels. The ratio is defined as a company's total tangible assets—such as land, buildings, machinery, and inventory—minus any short-term liabilities divided by its total debt outstanding. As a rule of thumb, utilities should have an asset coverage ratio of at least 1.5, and industrial companies should have an asset coverage ratio of at least 2.

Other Coverage Ratios

Several other coverage ratios are also used by analysts, though they are not as prominent as the above three:

  • The fixed-charge coverage ratio measures a firm's ability to cover its fixed charges, such as debt payments, interest expense and equipment lease expense. It shows how well a company's earnings can cover its fixed expenses. Banks often look at this ratio when evaluating whether to lend money to a business.
  • The loan life coverage ratio (LLCR) is a financial ratio used to estimate the solvency of a firm, or the ability of a borrowing company to repay an outstanding loan. The LLCR is calculated by dividing the net present value (NPV) of the money available for debt repayment by the amount of outstanding debt. 
  • The EBITDA-to-interest coverage ratio is a ratio that is used to assess a company's financial durability by examining whether it is at least profitable enough to pay off its interest expenses.
  • The preferred dividend coverage ratio is a coverage ratio that measures a company's ability to pay off its required preferred dividend payments. Preferred dividend payments are the scheduled dividend payments that are required to be paid on the company's preferred stock shares. Unlike common stock shares, the dividend payments for preferred stock are set in advance and cannot be changed from quarter to quarter. The company is required to pay them.
  • The liquidity coverage ratio (LCR) refers to the proportion of highly liquid assets held by financial institutions, to ensure their ongoing ability to meet short-term obligations. This ratio is essentially a generic stress test that aims to anticipate market-wide shocks and make sure that financial institutions possess suitable capital preservation, to ride out any short-term liquidity disruptions, that may plague the market.
  • The capital loss coverage ratio is the difference between an asset’s book value and the amount received from a sale relative to the value of the nonperforming assets being liquidated. The capital loss coverage ratio is an expression of how much transaction assistance is provided by a regulatory body in order to have an outside investor take part.

Example of Coverage Ratios

To see the potential difference between coverage ratios, let’s look at a fictional company, Cedar Valley Brewing. The company generates a quarterly profit of $200,000 (EBIT is $300,000) and corresponding interest payments of $50,000. Because Cedar Valley did much of its borrowing during a period of low interest rates, its interest coverage ratio looks extremely favorable:

  • Interest coverage ratio = 300,000 / 50,000 = 6.0

The debt-service coverage ratio, however, reflects a significant principal amount the company pays each quarter totaling $140,000. The resulting figure of 1.05 leaves little room for error if the company’s sales take an unexpected hit:

  • Debt-service coverage ratio = 200,000 / 190,000 = 1.05

Even though the company is generating a positive cash flow, it looks riskier from a debt perspective once debt-service coverage is taken into account.