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.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. We can see that Forterra plc (LON:FORT) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. 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, 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 step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Forterra's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2020 Forterra had UK£150.5m of debt, an increase on UK£66.7m, over one year. However, it does have UK£81.9m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about UK£68.6m.
A Look At Forterra's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Forterra had liabilities of UK£70.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of UK£167.1m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£81.9m and UK£41.4m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£113.9m.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Forterra has a market capitalization of UK£387.7m, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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.
While we wouldn't worry about Forterra's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.9, we think its super-low interest cover of 2.0 times is a sign of high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Worse, Forterra's EBIT was down 92% over the last year. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Forterra can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Forterra produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 71% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Both Forterra's EBIT growth rate and its interest cover were discouraging. But at least its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a gleaming silver lining to those clouds. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Forterra'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. Case in point: We've spotted 2 warning signs for Forterra you should be aware of, and 1 of them is significant.
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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