Stock Analysis

Here's Why Loblaw Companies (TSE:L) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

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TSX:L
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Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Loblaw Companies Limited (TSE:L) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Loblaw Companies

What Is Loblaw Companies's Net Debt?

As you can see below, Loblaw Companies had CA$7.71b of debt, at January 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have CA$1.94b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$5.77b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:L Debt to Equity History April 16th 2021

A Look At Loblaw Companies' Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Loblaw Companies had liabilities of CA$8.76b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$16.0b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$1.94b and CA$4.10b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$18.7b.

This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of CA$25.0b. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Loblaw Companies's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 1.6 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 3.2 times last year. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. Notably Loblaw Companies's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Loblaw Companies 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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Loblaw Companies actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.

Our View

On our analysis Loblaw Companies's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit to cover its interest expense with its EBIT. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Loblaw Companies'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. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that Loblaw Companies is showing 1 warning sign in our investment analysis , you should know about...

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

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About TSX:L

Loblaw Companies

Loblaw Companies Limited, a food and pharmacy company, engages in the grocery, pharmacy, health and beauty, apparel, general merchandise, financial services, and wireless mobile products and services businesses in Canada.

Solid track record with adequate balance sheet and pays a dividend.