Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. We can see that High Liner Foods Incorporated (TSE:HLF) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is High Liner Foods's Debt?
As you can see below, High Liner Foods had US$288.2m of debt at January 2021, down from US$341.1m a year prior. However, it does have US$33.1m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$255.1m.
How Strong Is High Liner Foods' Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that High Liner Foods had liabilities of US$152.6m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$333.0m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$33.1m in cash and US$63.5m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$388.9m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$353.3m, we think shareholders really should watch High Liner Foods's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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).
High Liner Foods's debt is 3.3 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.1 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. On a slightly more positive note, High Liner Foods grew its EBIT at 19% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage 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 High Liner Foods can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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, High Liner Foods actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for High Liner Foods was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. To be specific, it seems about as good at staying on top of its total liabilities as wet socks are at keeping your feet warm. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about High Liner Foods's use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. 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. Case in point: We've spotted 3 warning signs for High Liner Foods you should be aware of.
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
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