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.' 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 Aristocrat Leisure Limited (ASX:ALL) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Aristocrat Leisure's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Aristocrat Leisure had AU$3.27b in debt in September 2021; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of AU$2.44b, its net debt is less, at about AU$830.8m.
How Healthy Is Aristocrat Leisure's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Aristocrat Leisure had liabilities of AU$1.20b falling due within a year, and liabilities of AU$3.59b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$2.44b as well as receivables valued at AU$700.9m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$1.65b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Of course, Aristocrat Leisure has a titanic market capitalization of AU$29.9b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With net debt sitting at just 0.62 times EBITDA, Aristocrat Leisure is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And it boasts interest cover of 8.3 times, which is more than adequate. Better yet, Aristocrat Leisure grew its EBIT by 127% last year, which is an impressive improvement. If maintained that growth will make the debt even more manageable in the years ahead. 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 Aristocrat Leisure can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Aristocrat Leisure recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 99% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Aristocrat Leisure's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And the good news does not stop there, as its EBIT growth rate also supports that impression! Overall, we don't think Aristocrat Leisure is taking any bad risks, as its debt load seems modest. So the balance sheet looks pretty healthy, to us. 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, we've discovered 2 warning signs for Aristocrat Leisure that you should be aware of before investing here.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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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.