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 seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We note that VEEM Ltd (ASX:VEE) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is VEEM’s Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of December 2018, VEEM had AU$12.0m of debt, up from AU$11.3m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. On the flip side, it has AU$905.0k in cash leading to net debt of about AU$11.1m.
How Strong Is VEEM’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that VEEM had liabilities of AU$14.4m falling due within a year, and liabilities of AU$7.70m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$905.0k as well as receivables valued at AU$7.92m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by AU$13.3m.
Given VEEM has a market capitalization of AU$70.2m, it’s hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). 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).
VEEM has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.8 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 5.0 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we’d stop short of calling them problematic. Importantly, VEEM’s EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 55% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But you can’t view debt in total isolation; since VEEM will need earnings to service that debt. So when considering debt, it’s definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
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. Over the last three years, VEEM recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for and improvement.
On the face of it, VEEM’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least its level of total liabilities is not so bad. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that VEEM’s use of debt is creating risks for the company. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if VEEM insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don’t even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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