David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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, Ricegrowers Limited (ASX:SGLLV) does carry 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. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Ricegrowers's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Ricegrowers had debt of AU$98.2m at the end of October 2020, a reduction from AU$152.1m over a year. However, it does have AU$28.2m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about AU$70.1m.
A Look At Ricegrowers' Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Ricegrowers had liabilities of AU$208.2m due within a year, and liabilities of AU$62.8m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of AU$28.2m and AU$136.1m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling AU$106.7m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Ricegrowers has a market capitalization of AU$415.9m, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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.
Ricegrowers has net debt of just 1.2 times EBITDA, indicating that it is certainly not a reckless borrower. And it boasts interest cover of 7.2 times, which is more than adequate. It is just as well that Ricegrowers's load is not too heavy, because its EBIT was down 33% over the last year. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Ricegrowers 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Ricegrowers recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 91% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Ricegrowers's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered were considerably better. In particular, we are dazzled with its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Ricegrowers's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Case in point: We've spotted 1 warning sign for Ricegrowers you should be aware of.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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