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 Metcash Limited (ASX:MTS) makes use of 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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Metcash Carry?
As you can see below, at the end of October 2021, Metcash had AU$350.9m of debt, up from none a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have AU$202.9m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about AU$148.0m.
How Healthy Is Metcash's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Metcash had liabilities of AU$2.65b falling due within a year, and liabilities of AU$1.35b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had AU$202.9m in cash and AU$1.79b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by AU$2.01b.
This deficit isn't so bad because Metcash is worth AU$4.39b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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).
Metcash has net debt of just 0.35 times EBITDA, indicating that it is certainly not a reckless borrower. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 9.7 times the interest expense over the last year. And we also note warmly that Metcash grew its EBIT by 10% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Metcash can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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 clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Metcash produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 70% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Metcash's net debt to EBITDA suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But truth be told we feel its level of total liabilities does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Metcash takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. 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. Be aware that Metcash is showing 1 warning sign in our investment analysis , you should know about...
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.