Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that Britvic plc (LON:BVIC) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Britvic's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Britvic had debt of UK£628.9m at the end of March 2021, a reduction from UK£757.3m over a year. However, it also had UK£41.8m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£587.1m.
How Strong Is Britvic's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Britvic had liabilities of UK£505.3m falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£724.2m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£41.8m and UK£300.6m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total UK£887.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Britvic has a market capitalization of UK£2.49b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Britvic's debt is 3.3 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 6.7 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. Unfortunately, Britvic's EBIT flopped 20% over the last four quarters. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. 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 Britvic'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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. 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, Britvic recorded free cash flow worth 75% 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.
Britvic's struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. In particular, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was re-invigorating. We think that Britvic's debt does make it a bit risky, after considering the aforementioned data points together. 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. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Britvic .
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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