Is Smith & Nephew (LON:SN.) Using Too Much Debt?

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. 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. As with many other companies Smith & Nephew plc (LON:SN.) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Smith & Nephew

How Much Debt Does Smith & Nephew Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 Smith & Nephew had US$2.02b of debt, an increase on US$1.51b, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$137.0m, its net debt is less, at about US$1.88b.

LSE:SN. Historical Debt, February 5th 2020
LSE:SN. Historical Debt, February 5th 2020

A Look At Smith & Nephew’s Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, Smith & Nephew had liabilities of US$1.47b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$2.52b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$137.0m in cash and US$1.28b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$2.58b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Since publicly traded Smith & Nephew shares are worth a very impressive total of US$20.8b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it’s clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Smith & Nephew has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.3. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 19.9 times the size. So we’re pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Also positive, Smith & Nephew grew its EBIT by 20% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. 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 Smith & Nephew’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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it’s worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Smith & Nephew produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 70% of its EBIT, about what we’d expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

The good news is that Smith & Nephew’s demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! It’s also worth noting that Smith & Nephew is in the Medical Equipment industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Zooming out, Smith & Nephew seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet – far from it. For example, we’ve discovered 1 warning sign for Smith & Nephew that you should be aware of before investing here.

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.

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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