Brambles (ASX:BXB) Seems To Use Debt Quite Sensibly

By
Simply Wall St
Published
October 29, 2021
ASX:BXB
Source: Shutterstock

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. As with many other companies Brambles Limited (ASX:BXB) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Brambles

How Much Debt Does Brambles Carry?

As you can see below, Brambles had US$1.75b of debt, at June 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$408.5m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.34b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
ASX:BXB Debt to Equity History October 29th 2021

How Strong Is Brambles' Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Brambles had liabilities of US$1.97b due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.81b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$408.5m as well as receivables valued at US$863.8m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$3.51b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit isn't so bad because Brambles is worth a massive US$10.8b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Brambles's net debt is only 0.83 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 14.0 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. And we also note warmly that Brambles grew its EBIT by 15% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Brambles'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. Looking at the most recent three years, Brambles recorded free cash flow of 31% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

The good news is that Brambles's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Brambles can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example - Brambles has 2 warning signs we think you should be aware of.

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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