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.' 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. We note that BCE Inc. (TSE:BCE) does have debt on its balance sheet. 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. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is BCE's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that BCE had debt of CA$24.4b at the end of March 2021, a reduction from CA$29.7b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of CA$2.61b, its net debt is less, at about CA$21.8b.
How Healthy Is BCE's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that BCE had liabilities of CA$9.53b due within a year, and liabilities of CA$32.4b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CA$2.61b as well as receivables valued at CA$3.81b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CA$35.5b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of CA$56.1b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on BCE's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
BCE's debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.7 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Sadly, BCE's EBIT actually dropped 9.1% in the last year. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if BCE 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, BCE recorded free cash flow worth 69% 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.
BCE's EBIT growth rate and level of total liabilities definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But the good news is it seems to be able to convert EBIT to free cash flow with ease. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that BCE is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example BCE has 4 warning signs (and 1 which is significant) we think you should know about.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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