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.’ So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We can see that Air China Limited (HKG:753) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Air China Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Air China had CN¥54.9b in debt in March 2020; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has CN¥11.2b in cash leading to net debt of about CN¥43.7b.
How Strong Is Air China’s Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Air China had liabilities of CN¥81.7b due within a year, and liabilities of CN¥115.6b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CN¥11.2b as well as receivables valued at CN¥8.43b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CN¥177.7b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit casts a shadow over the CN¥94.4b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, Air China would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
In order to size up a company’s debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
While we wouldn’t worry about Air China’s net debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.7, we think its super-low interest cover of 1.6 times is a sign of high leverage. In large part that’s due to the company’s significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Even worse, Air China saw its EBIT tank 45% over the last 12 months. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Air China can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. 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, Air China actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
To be frank both Air China’s EBIT growth rate and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We’re quite clear that we consider Air China to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. For this reason we’re pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 1 warning sign we’ve spotted with Air China .
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.
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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. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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