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 NEXT plc (LON:NXT) 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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does NEXT Carry?
As you can see below, NEXT had UK£1.20b of debt, at July 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have UK£774.7m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about UK£429.6m.
How Healthy Is NEXT's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that NEXT had liabilities of UK£1.27b due within a year, and liabilities of UK£1.84b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had UK£774.7m in cash and UK£1.18b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total UK£1.16b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given NEXT has a humongous market capitalization of UK£10.5b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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). 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).
With net debt sitting at just 0.52 times EBITDA, NEXT is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 7.2 times the interest expense over the last year. On top of that, NEXT grew its EBIT by 41% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. 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 NEXT's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
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, NEXT 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.
Happily, NEXT's impressive conversion of EBIT to free cash flow implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its EBIT growth rate also supports that impression! Considering this range of factors, it seems to us that NEXT is quite prudent with its debt, and the risks seem well managed. So we're not worried about the use of a little leverage on the balance sheet. 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. To that end, you should be aware of the 1 warning sign we've spotted with NEXT .
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.
This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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