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. We note that Boral Limited (ASX:BLD) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can’t fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Boral’s Debt?
As you can see below, Boral had AU$2.38b of debt at December 2018, down from AU$2.51b a year prior. However, because it has a cash reserve of AU$93.4m, its net debt is less, at about AU$2.29b.
How Strong Is Boral’s Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Boral had liabilities of AU$892.1m due within 12 months and liabilities of AU$2.64b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had AU$93.4m in cash and AU$835.1m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$2.61b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn’t so bad because Boral is worth AU$6.58b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it’s clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Boral has net debt worth 2.5 times EBITDA, which isn’t too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 5.5 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it’s worth noting that the cost of the company’s debt is having a real impact. Importantly, Boral grew its EBIT by 52% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Boral’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, 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. In the last three years, Boral’s free cash flow amounted to 37% of its EBIT, less than we’d expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Boral was the fact that it seems able to grow its EBIT confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren’t so encouraging. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Boral is managing its debt quite well. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. We’d be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Boral insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you’re in luck, since today we’re sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
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.
We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.