These 4 Measures Indicate That Tesco (LON:TSCO) Is Using Debt In A Risky Way

By
Simply Wall St
Published
July 24, 2021
LSE:TSCO
Source: Shutterstock

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a 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. As with many other companies Tesco PLC (LON:TSCO) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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 thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Tesco

What Is Tesco's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Tesco had UK£7.27b of debt in February 2021, down from UK£8.22b, one year before. However, it also had UK£3.52b in cash, and so its net debt is UK£3.75b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
LSE:TSCO Debt to Equity History July 24th 2021

How Healthy Is Tesco's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Tesco had liabilities of UK£16.0b due within 12 months, and liabilities of UK£17.5b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£3.52b and UK£1.30b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total UK£28.6b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the UK£18.0b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, Tesco would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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.

While Tesco's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.2 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.1 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. The bad news is that Tesco saw its EBIT decline by 20% 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. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Tesco'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.

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. Considering the last three years, Tesco actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.

Our View

To be frank both Tesco'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 net debt to EBITDA is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Tesco has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. 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 learn about the 3 warning signs we've spotted with Tesco (including 1 which can't be ignored) .

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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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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