Here's Why DS Smith (LON:SMDS) Can Manage Its Debt Responsibly

Published
August 06, 2022
LSE:SMDS
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Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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 note that DS Smith Plc (LON:SMDS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

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What Is DS Smith's Net Debt?

As you can see below, DS Smith had UK£2.15b of debt at April 2022, down from UK£2.41b a year prior. However, because it has a cash reserve of UK£819.0m, its net debt is less, at about UK£1.33b.

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LSE:SMDS Debt to Equity History August 6th 2022

How Strong Is DS Smith's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that DS Smith had liabilities of UK£3.57b falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£2.09b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£819.0m as well as receivables valued at UK£1.15b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling UK£3.68b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of UK£3.87b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on DS Smith's use of debt. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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.

DS Smith's net debt of 1.7 times EBITDA suggests graceful use of debt. And the fact that its trailing twelve months of EBIT was 7.8 times its interest expenses harmonizes with that theme. Also positive, DS Smith grew its EBIT by 26% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine DS Smith'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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, DS Smith recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 89% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.

Our View

The good news is that DS Smith's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its level of total liabilities. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that DS Smith can handle its debt fairly comfortably. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. 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. We've identified 1 warning sign with DS Smith , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

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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