Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We can see that Uni-Select Inc. (TSE:UNS) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. 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, 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Uni-Select's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Uni-Select had US$393.6m of debt in September 2020, down from US$436.0m, one year before. On the flip side, it has US$18.6m in cash leading to net debt of about US$375.0m.
How Healthy Is Uni-Select's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Uni-Select had liabilities of US$354.5m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$521.7m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$18.6m as well as receivables valued at US$218.2m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$639.4m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$247.1m 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'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. At the end of the day, Uni-Select would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Uni-Select shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (6.2), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 0.82 times the interest expense. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. Worse, Uni-Select's EBIT was down 56% over the last year. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Uni-Select 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Uni-Select actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
On the face of it, Uni-Select's EBIT growth rate left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Uni-Select has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. 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. Like risks, for instance. Every company has them, and we've spotted 2 warning signs for Uni-Select (of which 1 doesn't sit too well with us!) you should know about.
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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