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. Importantly, New Hope Corporation Limited (ASX:NHC) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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. 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 New Hope's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of January 2021 New Hope had AU$377.3m of debt, an increase on AU$359.0m, over one year. On the flip side, it has AU$114.8m in cash leading to net debt of about AU$262.4m.
How Healthy Is New Hope's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that New Hope had liabilities of AU$173.9m due within 12 months and liabilities of AU$742.1m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had AU$114.8m in cash and AU$110.2m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$691.0m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
New Hope has a market capitalization of AU$1.24b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate 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 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
While New Hope has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 1.6, its interest cover seems weak, at 1.8. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. While companies often boast that these charges are non-cash, most such businesses will therefore require ongoing investment (that is not expensed.) Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Importantly, New Hope's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 88% 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 ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if New Hope 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, New Hope recorded free cash flow worth 73% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
While New Hope's interest cover makes us cautious about it, its track record of (not) growing its EBIT is no better. But at least its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a gleaming silver lining to those clouds. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that New Hope is taking some risks with its use of debt. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with New Hope .
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.
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