Gulf Marine Services (LON:GMS) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

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 Gulf Marine Services PLC (LON:GMS) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Gulf Marine Services

How Much Debt Does Gulf Marine Services Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Gulf Marine Services had debt of US$408.3m, up from US$420 in one year. And it doesn’t have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

LSE:GMS Historical Debt, January 25th 2020
LSE:GMS Historical Debt, January 25th 2020

How Healthy Is Gulf Marine Services’s Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Gulf Marine Services had liabilities of US$432.1m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$3.23m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.92m and US$33.6m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$398.7m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$39.6m 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, Gulf Marine Services would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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). 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).

Weak interest cover of 0.66 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 7.7 hit our confidence in Gulf Marine Services like a one-two punch to the gut. This means we’d consider it to have a heavy debt load. Fortunately, Gulf Marine Services grew its EBIT by 7.5% in the last year, slowly shrinking its debt relative to earnings. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Gulf Marine Services’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you’re focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Gulf Marine Services actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.

Our View

To be frank both Gulf Marine Services’s interest cover and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it’s pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that’s encouraging. Overall, we think it’s fair to say that Gulf Marine Services has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. 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 instance, we’ve identified 2 warning signs for Gulf Marine Services (1 doesn’t sit too well with us) you should be aware of.

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.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. 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. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.

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