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.' 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 Saputo Inc. (TSE:SAP) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Saputo's Debt?
As you can see below, Saputo had CA$3.82b of debt, at September 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of CA$222.0m, its net debt is less, at about CA$3.60b.
How Healthy Is Saputo's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Saputo had liabilities of CA$2.56b falling due within a year, and liabilities of CA$4.44b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CA$222.0m in cash and CA$1.33b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CA$5.44b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Saputo has a market capitalization of CA$11.8b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). 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).
Saputo has net debt to EBITDA of 3.0 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. On the plus side, its EBIT was 8.3 times its interest expense, and its net debt to EBITDA, was quite high, at 3.0. Unfortunately, Saputo's EBIT flopped 19% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. 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 Saputo'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. During the last three years, Saputo produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 57% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Saputo's struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. For example, its interest cover is relatively strong. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Saputo's debt poses some risks to the business. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 1 warning sign for Saputo you should know about.
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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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.