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. We can see that Econocom Group SE (EBR:ECONB) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Econocom Group's Debt?
As you can see below, Econocom Group had €435.3m of debt at June 2021, down from €706.4m a year prior. On the flip side, it has €299.7m in cash leading to net debt of about €135.6m.
A Look At Econocom Group's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Econocom Group had liabilities of €1.29b due within a year, and liabilities of €595.9m falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had €299.7m in cash and €850.5m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by €738.8m.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of €673.5m, we think shareholders really should watch Econocom Group's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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.
Econocom Group's net debt is only 0.94 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 11.8 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Another good sign is that Econocom Group has been able to increase its EBIT by 21% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down debt. 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 Econocom Group'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 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, Econocom Group recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 91% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
The good news is that Econocom Group's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But we must concede we find its level of total liabilities has the opposite effect. All these things considered, it appears that Econocom Group can comfortably handle its current debt levels. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it's worth keeping an eye on this one. 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 instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Econocom Group that you should be aware of.
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.
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.
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