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. It’s only natural to consider a company’s balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. Importantly, Central Garden & Pet Company (NASDAQ:CENT) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Central Garden & Pet’s Net Debt?
As you can see below, Central Garden & Pet had US$693.1m of debt, at December 2019, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has US$445.8m in cash leading to net debt of about US$247.3m.
How Healthy Is Central Garden & Pet’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Central Garden & Pet had liabilities of US$343.9m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$818.1m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$445.8m and US$268.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$447.9m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Central Garden & Pet has a market capitalization of US$1.41b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
While Central Garden & Pet’s low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.2 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 4.4 times last year does give us pause. So we’d recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Unfortunately, Central Garden & Pet saw its EBIT slide 5.6% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. 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 Central Garden & Pet’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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Central Garden & Pet produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 69% of its EBIT, about what we’d expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
On our analysis Central Garden & Pet’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won’t have too much trouble with its debt. But the other factors we noted above weren’t so encouraging. For example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Central Garden & Pet’s debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet – far from it. Take risks, for example – Central Garden & Pet has 2 warning signs we think you should be aware of.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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