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.’ 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 can see that TVA Group Inc. (TSE:TVA.B) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is TVA Group’s Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2019 TVA Group had debt of CA$72.3m, up from CA$60.2m in one year. However, it also had CA$2.86m in cash, and so its net debt is CA$69.4m.
How Strong Is TVA Group’s Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that TVA Group had liabilities of CA$259.9m falling due within a year, and liabilities of CA$26.3m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$2.86m and CA$151.1m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total CA$132.2m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the CA$77.8m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, TVA Group would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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 TVA Group’s low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.5 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 5.9 last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Shareholders should be aware that TVA Group’s EBIT was down 55% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if TVA Group can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, TVA Group recorded free cash flow worth 63% 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 TVA Group’s EBIT growth rate and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities 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. We’re quite clear that we consider TVA Group to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. So we’re almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner’s fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. In light of our reservations about the company’s balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
If, after all that, you’re more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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