Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We note that West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. (TSE:WFT) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. 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. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is West Fraser Timber's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2020 West Fraser Timber had debt of CA$1.05b, up from CA$910.0m in one year. However, it does have CA$127.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$920.0m.
A Look At West Fraser Timber's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that West Fraser Timber had liabilities of CA$800.0m due within a year, and liabilities of CA$1.51b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CA$127.0m as well as receivables valued at CA$395.0m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$1.79b.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since West Fraser Timber has a market capitalization of CA$4.14b, 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.
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 we wouldn't worry about West Fraser Timber's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.5, we think its super-low interest cover of 0.06 times is a sign of 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. Even worse, West Fraser Timber saw its EBIT tank 99% over the last 12 months. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that debt. 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 West Fraser Timber'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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, West Fraser Timber recorded free cash flow worth 53% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
To be frank both West Fraser Timber's interest cover and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that West Fraser Timber'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. 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. Consider for instance, the ever-present spectre of investment risk. We've identified 1 warning sign with West Fraser Timber , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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. 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.
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