Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, ‘The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about… and every practical investor I know worries about. When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We can see that Bayer Aktiengesellschaft (ETR:BAYN) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Bayer’s Net Debt?
As you can see below, Bayer had €42.5b of debt, at September 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have €5.55b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about €36.9b.
A Look At Bayer’s Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Bayer had liabilities of €26.1b due within a year, and liabilities of €58.6b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €5.55b as well as receivables valued at €14.2b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by €64.9b.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of €69.9b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Bayer’s use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
We measure a company’s debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Weak interest cover of 0.36 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 7.7 hit our confidence in Bayer like a one-two punch to the gut. The debt burden here is substantial. Worse, Bayer’s EBIT was down 94% over the last year. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball’s chance in hell of paying off that debt. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Bayer’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
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, Bayer actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
On the face of it, Bayer’s interest cover 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 on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, we think it’s fair to say that Bayer has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the 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. For example, we’ve discovered 3 warning signs for Bayer (1 is a bit unpleasant!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
At the end of the day, it’s often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It’s free.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.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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