David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' 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 RELX PLC (LON:REL) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. 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 step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is RELX's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2020 RELX had UK£7.50b of debt, an increase on UK£6.51b, over one year. However, it also had UK£195.0m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£7.31b.
A Look At RELX's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that RELX had liabilities of UK£4.76b due within a year, and liabilities of UK£8.11b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£195.0m and UK£1.80b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£10.9b.
RELX has a very large market capitalization of UK£34.1b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
RELX has net debt to EBITDA of 3.4 suggesting it uses a fair bit of leverage to boost returns. But the high interest coverage of 9.7 suggests it can easily service that debt. The bad news is that RELX saw its EBIT decline by 12% over the last year. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine RELX'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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, RELX recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 85% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for RELX was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that RELX is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For instance, we've identified 1 warning sign for RELX that you should be aware of.
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
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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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