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 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. As with many other companies Maple Leaf Foods Inc. (TSE:MFI) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Maple Leaf Foods's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at December 2021 Maple Leaf Foods had debt of CA$1.27b, up from CA$745.9m in one year. However, it also had CA$162.0m in cash, and so its net debt is CA$1.11b.
How Healthy Is Maple Leaf Foods' Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Maple Leaf Foods had liabilities of CA$668.7m due within a year, and liabilities of CA$1.68b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CA$162.0m as well as receivables valued at CA$202.2m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$1.99b.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Maple Leaf Foods has a market capitalization of CA$3.70b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Maple Leaf Foods has net debt to EBITDA of 3.4 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. But the high interest coverage of 9.5 suggests it can easily service that debt. Unfortunately, Maple Leaf Foods saw its EBIT slide 7.5% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. 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 Maple Leaf Foods's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Maple Leaf Foods burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
Mulling over Maple Leaf Foods's attempt at converting EBIT to free cash flow, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that's encouraging. Overall, we think it's fair to say that Maple Leaf Foods has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Maple Leaf Foods 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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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.