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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. As with many other companies NEXT plc (LON:NXT) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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.
How Much Debt Does NEXT Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that NEXT had UK£1.26b in debt in January 2021; about the same as the year before. However, it does have UK£614.3m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about UK£646.9m.
A Look At NEXT's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that NEXT had liabilities of UK£1.20b falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£1.90b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£614.3m as well as receivables valued at UK£1.08b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total UK£1.41b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Of course, NEXT has a titanic market capitalization of UK£10.5b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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).
While NEXT's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.4 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.4 times last year does give us pause. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Shareholders should be aware that NEXT's EBIT was down 59% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. 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 NEXT 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, 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. Over the last three years, NEXT actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.
NEXT's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered were considerably better. There's no doubt that its ability to to convert EBIT to free cash flow is pretty flash. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about NEXT's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. We've identified 4 warning signs with NEXT , 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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