Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. Importantly, Dromeas SA (ATH:DROME) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Dromeas's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of December 2020 Dromeas had €27.6m of debt, an increase on €25.9m, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of €2.22m, its net debt is less, at about €25.4m.
How Strong Is Dromeas' Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Dromeas had liabilities of €14.0m due within a year, and liabilities of €24.2m falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €2.22m as well as receivables valued at €9.86m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling €26.2m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's €18.4m market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
As it happens Dromeas has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 9.3 but very strong interest coverage of 1k. This means that unless the company has access to very cheap debt, that interest expense will likely grow in the future. Sadly, Dromeas's EBIT actually dropped 8.1% in the last year. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is Dromeas's earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So when considering debt, it's definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Dromeas generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 93% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
To be frank both Dromeas's level of total liabilities and its track record of managing its debt, based on its EBITDA, make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its interest cover is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Dromeas stock a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. 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. For example Dromeas has 2 warning signs (and 1 which makes us a bit uncomfortable) we think you should know about.
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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