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 Vodafone Group Plc (LON:VOD) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Ultimately, if the company can’t fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Vodafone Group Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2019 Vodafone Group had debt of €56.9b, up from €45.6b in one year. On the flip side, it has €25.5b in cash leading to net debt of about €31.5b.
A Look At Vodafone Group’s Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Vodafone Group had liabilities of €25.5b due within 12 months, and liabilities of €53.9b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €25.5b as well as receivables valued at €9.90b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling €44.1b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of €48.8b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Vodafone Group’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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Vodafone Group has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.7 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.8 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn’t want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Vodafone Group saw its EBIT drop by 14% over the last twelve months. If that’s the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. 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 Vodafone Group’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Vodafone Group actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There’s nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders’ good graces.
Vodafone Group’s EBIT growth rate and level of total liabilities definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow tells a very different story, and suggests some resilience. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Vodafone Group’s debt poses some risks to the business. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn’t really want to see it increase from here. In light of our reservations about the company’s balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
Of course, if you’re the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don’t hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
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