Stock Analysis

Is CSL (ASX:CSL) Using Too Much Debt?

ASX:CSL
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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.' 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, CSL Limited (ASX:CSL) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for CSL

What Is CSL's Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2023, CSL had US$10.5b of debt, up from US$8.27b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. On the flip side, it has US$1.55b in cash leading to net debt of about US$8.98b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
ASX:CSL Debt to Equity History December 10th 2023

A Look At CSL's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that CSL had liabilities of US$4.61b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$13.8b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.55b as well as receivables valued at US$1.94b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$14.9b.

Of course, CSL has a titanic market capitalization of US$84.8b, 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.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

CSL's net debt of 2.3 times EBITDA suggests graceful use of debt. And the alluring interest cover (EBIT of 8.7 times interest expense) certainly does not do anything to dispel this impression. One way CSL could vanquish its debt would be if it stops borrowing more but continues to grow EBIT at around 11%, as it did over the last year. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if CSL 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, CSL recorded free cash flow of 46% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

Both CSL's ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT and its EBIT growth rate gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. On the other hand, its net debt to EBITDA makes us a little less comfortable about its debt. Considering this range of data points, we think CSL is in a good position to manage its debt levels. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example - CSL has 1 warning sign we think you should be aware of.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

Find out whether CSL is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

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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.