We Think SunOpta (TSE:SOY) Is Taking Some Risk With Its Debt

By
Simply Wall St
Published
January 11, 2022
TSX:SOY
Source: Shutterstock

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 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. We note that SunOpta Inc. (TSE:SOY) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for SunOpta

What Is SunOpta's Net Debt?

As you can see below, SunOpta had US$177.5m of debt at October 2021, down from US$429.3m a year prior. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:SOY Debt to Equity History January 11th 2022

How Strong Is SunOpta's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that SunOpta had liabilities of US$135.2m due within a year, and liabilities of US$277.6m falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$284.0k as well as receivables valued at US$94.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$318.5m.

This deficit isn't so bad because SunOpta is worth US$676.1m, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

While SunOpta's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.4) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.4, suggesting high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. One redeeming factor for SunOpta is that it turned last year's EBIT loss into a gain of US$19m, over the last twelve months. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if SunOpta 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of the earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) is backed by free cash flow. During the last year, SunOpta burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, SunOpta's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. Having said that, its ability to grow its EBIT isn't such a worry. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that SunOpta's use of debt is creating risks for the company. 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. To that end, you should be aware of the 3 warning signs we've spotted with SunOpta .

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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