ASOS (LON:ASC) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, ‘The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. Importantly, ASOS Plc (LON:ASC) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can’t easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for ASOS

How Much Debt Does ASOS Carry?

As you can see below, at the end of August 2019, ASOS had UK£90.5m of debt, up from none a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had UK£22.1m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£68.4m.

AIM:ASC Historical Debt, February 2nd 2020
AIM:ASC Historical Debt, February 2nd 2020

How Healthy Is ASOS’s Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that ASOS had liabilities of UK£772.2m falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£19.7m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had UK£22.1m in cash and UK£53.8m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total UK£716.0m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since ASOS has a market capitalization of UK£2.57b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

ASOS’s net debt is only 1.1 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 17.6 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. It is just as well that ASOS’s load is not too heavy, because its EBIT was down 66% over the last year. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if ASOS can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you’re focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, ASOS saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, ASOS’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it’s pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that’s encouraging. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making ASOS stock a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we’re mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we’d probably prefer it carry less debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Case in point: We’ve spotted 2 warning signs for ASOS you should be aware of, and 1 of them is significant.

When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don’t even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.

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