The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says ‘The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.’ 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. Importantly, M/I Homes, Inc. (NYSE:MHO) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. 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 M/I Homes Carry?
As you can see below, M/I Homes had US$828.7m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$20.8m in cash, and so its net debt is US$807.8m.
How Healthy Is M/I Homes’s Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, M/I Homes had liabilities of US$298.8m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$886.2m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$20.8m as well as receivables valued at US$13.6m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$1.15b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s market capitalization of US$990.1m, we think shareholders really should watch M/I Homes’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive 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).
M/I Homes has net debt to EBITDA of 4.3 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. But the high interest coverage of 9.6 suggests it can easily service that debt. If M/I Homes can keep growing EBIT at last year’s rate of 11% over the last year, then it will find its debt load easier to manage. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine M/I Homes’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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Considering the last three years, M/I Homes actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is far more risky for companies with unreliable free cash flow, so shareholders should be hoping that the past expenditure will produce free cash flow in the future.
On the face of it, M/I Homes’s level of total liabilities left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its interest cover is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that M/I Homes’s use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if M/I Homes insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
If you’re interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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