Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 Bouygues SA (EPA:EN) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Bouygues's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of March 2020, Bouygues had €8.05b of debt, up from €7.13b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of €4.48b, its net debt is less, at about €3.57b.
How Strong Is Bouygues's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Bouygues had liabilities of €19.8b due within a year, and liabilities of €9.05b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of €4.48b and €11.9b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling €12.6b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of €12.1b, we think shareholders really should watch Bouygues's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
While Bouygues's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.1 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 5.9 times last year does give us pause. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Unfortunately, Bouygues saw its EBIT slide 7.9% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. 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 Bouygues 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.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Bouygues recorded free cash flow worth 54% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Both Bouygues's level of total liabilities and its EBIT growth rate were discouraging. But its not so bad at managing its debt, based on its EBITDA,. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Bouygues's debt poses some risks to the business. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Bouygues .
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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