Stock Analysis

Does Capita (LON:CPI) Have A Healthy Balance Sheet?

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LSE:CPI
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. We note that Capita plc (LON:CPI) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

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What Is Capita's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Capita had debt of UK£1.01b at the end of June 2021, a reduction from UK£1.44b over a year. On the flip side, it has UK£576.0m in cash leading to net debt of about UK£432.0m.

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LSE:CPI Debt to Equity History December 14th 2021

A Look At Capita's Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that Capita had liabilities of UK£2.37b due within a year, and liabilities of UK£1.12b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£576.0m and UK£692.3m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£2.22b.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the UK£612.2m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, Capita would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 1.5 and interest cover of 4.3 times, it seems to us that Capita is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Notably, Capita's EBIT launched higher than Elon Musk, gaining a whopping 141% on last year. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Capita'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 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, Capita recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.

Our View

To be frank both Capita's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Capita's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. To that end, you should learn about the 4 warning signs we've spotted with Capita (including 3 which make us uncomfortable) .

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.

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