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.' 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. Importantly, Santos Limited (ASX:STO) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest 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 Santos's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2020 Santos had US$4.66b of debt, an increase on US$4.25b, over one year. However, it also had US$1.29b in cash, and so its net debt is US$3.37b.
How Healthy Is Santos's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Santos had liabilities of US$1.13b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$9.03b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.29b as well as receivables valued at US$540.0m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$8.3b.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$7.74b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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). 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).
Santos has net debt worth 1.7 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 4.3 times the interest expense. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. Shareholders should be aware that Santos's EBIT was down 40% last year. 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 it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Santos'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, Santos actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
Mulling over Santos's attempt at (not) growing its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Santos's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Santos insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
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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