Is Loblaw Companies (TSE:L) Using Too Much Debt?

By
Simply Wall St
Published
April 16, 2022
TSX:L
Source: Shutterstock

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 might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Loblaw Companies Limited (TSE:L) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

View our latest analysis for Loblaw Companies

What Is Loblaw Companies's Net Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Loblaw Companies had CA$7.72b in debt in January 2022; about the same as the year before. However, it does have CA$2.44b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$5.28b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:L Debt to Equity History April 16th 2022

How Strong Is Loblaw Companies' Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Loblaw Companies had liabilities of CA$9.20b due within a year, and liabilities of CA$15.7b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CA$2.44b as well as receivables valued at CA$4.69b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CA$17.7b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Loblaw Companies has a very large market capitalization of CA$38.4b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

While Loblaw Companies's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.2 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 4.4 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Also relevant is that Loblaw Companies has grown its EBIT by a very respectable 25% in the last year, thus enhancing its ability to pay down 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 Loblaw Companies'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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. 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, Loblaw Companies actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.

Our View

The good news is that Loblaw Companies's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But truth be told we feel its interest cover does undermine this impression a bit. When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Loblaw Companies is pretty sensible with its use of debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 3 warning signs for Loblaw Companies (1 is concerning) 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.

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