Stock Analysis

These 4 Measures Indicate That Loblaw Companies (TSE:L) Is Using Debt Reasonably Well

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TSX:L
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Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. Importantly, Loblaw Companies Limited (TSE:L) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest 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 Loblaw Companies

What Is Loblaw Companies's Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Loblaw Companies had CA$7.91b in debt in October 2020; about the same as the year before. However, it does have CA$1.84b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$6.06b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:L Debt to Equity History December 4th 2020

How Strong Is Loblaw Companies's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Loblaw Companies had liabilities of CA$8.68b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$16.0b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CA$1.84b in cash and CA$3.98b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total CA$18.9b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of CA$22.4b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.

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.

Loblaw Companies's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 1.7 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 3.1 times last year. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Importantly Loblaw Companies's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. Ideally it can diminish its debt load by kick-starting earnings growth. 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 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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual 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. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. 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 debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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 1 warning sign for Loblaw Companies 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.

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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.