First baseman Ryan Howard and the Phillies made it official Sunday: he accepted Philadelphia's offer of $54 million over three years -- allowing him to stay with the team he's played for since 2004.

Howard's known for his power and driving in runs. He had 48 home runs and 146 RBIs in 610 at-bats last season. His lifetime batting average is .279.

My own record for Nails on the Numbers, my deep-in-the-money options call strategy, stands at 95-1, and I'm going to push it out much further this year.

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Companies can clean their slates in a recession by reducing the debt they carry. If they don't, a debt load can become an albatross around the neck, as corporations see cash flow dry up to service the debt.

A way to monitor a stock's ability to service its debt is the interest coverage ratio, or earnings before interest and taxes, divided by the interest expense over a given period of time. These figures come from the income statement, and are just one way of monitoring a company's debt burden.

A healthy coverage ratio should at least be 1.0, but a ratio above 1.5 is ideal. It shows the company still has earnings left over after paying interest charges.

Many industries don't require vast sums of capital to generate profit. Software companies come to mind.


(MSFT) - Get Report

has traditionally carried no debt. Even


(ORCL) - Get Report

, which has acquired over three dozen companies in the past five years, had cash flow to keep its interest coverage ratio at a shiny 12.6 as the end of November.

Not all tech companies escape debt.


( PALM) negative coverage ratio has worsened to minus 11.7 at the end of November, from minus 8.7 a year earlier.

Airlines are renowned for being highly leveraged. And it shows in their coverage ratios.

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

has switched from a positive ratio of 1.5 for the fourth quarter of 2007 -- 2.6 for the full year -- to a negative 1.6 at the end of 2008. Likewise,


( UAUA) fell from 0.4 for the last calendar quarter of 2007 -- 2.1 for the year -- to negative 8.9 for the last quarter of 2008. In both cases, losses couldn't begin to offset the interest charges.

Utilities are another debt-hungry industry. How well they are coping with the recession turns up in their interest coverage ratios.

Reliant Energy


had a good interest coverage ratio of 10.2 in June, but that had evaporated by the end of September to a negative 24.6 with the posting of a $1.54 billion loss. The company's interest expense had actually dropped somewhat.

Some utilities were still in positive territory at their most recent complete earnings disclosures, but are falling fast.



, for example, had a ratio of 2.06 for all of 2007, but that fell to 1.07 for the first three quarters of 2008, indicating a change in earnings, interest expense, or both. While interest payments were cut drastically this year, earnings fell faster.

Retailer debt has also risen, but we'll have to wait a few weeks for the full effect of a lousy holiday sales season on those chains whose quarters just ended.


(M) - Get Report

had a comfy ratio of nine a year ago. The retail giant -- which just closed its fourth quarter -- had already booked interest expenses of $440 million at the end of October, up 8% for the first three quarters. And the company's interest coverage ratio had dropped to 0.86 for the first three quarters, from 3.3 for all of 2007.

Lenny Dykstra manages Nails on the Numbers, a subscription service sold by Dykstra is 95-1 in his options picks. Click here for a free trial to Nails on the Numbers. Mr. Dykstra writes regularly about options trades for


At the time of publication, Dykstra had no positions in stocks mentioned.

Nicknamed 'Nails' for his tough style of play, Lenny is a former Major League Baseball player for the 1986 World Champions, New York Mets and the 1993 National League Champions, Philadelphia Phillies. A three time All-Star as a ballplayer, Lenny now serves as president for several privately held businesses in Southern California. He is the founder of The Players Club; it has been his desire to give back to the sport that gave him early successes in life by teaching athletes how to invest and protect their incomes. He currently manages his own portfolio and writes an investment strategy column for, and is featured regularly on CNBC and other cable news shows. Lenny was selected as OverTime Magazine's 2006-2007 "Entrepreneur of the Year."