Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We can see that CPI Computer Peripherals International (ATH:CPI) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. 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.
What Is CPI Computer Peripherals International's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that CPI Computer Peripherals International had €1.93m of debt in December 2020, down from €2.17m, one year before. On the flip side, it has €560.1k in cash leading to net debt of about €1.37m.
How Healthy Is CPI Computer Peripherals International's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that CPI Computer Peripherals International had liabilities of €5.08m due within 12 months and liabilities of €1.64m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had €560.1k in cash and €3.56m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling €2.60m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since CPI Computer Peripherals International has a market capitalization of €6.39m, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without 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). 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 we wouldn't worry about CPI Computer Peripherals International's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.1, we think its super-low interest cover of 1.0 times is a sign of high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Even worse, CPI Computer Peripherals International saw its EBIT tank 63% over the last 12 months. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since CPI Computer Peripherals International will need earnings to service that debt. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, CPI Computer Peripherals International actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last two years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
Neither CPI Computer Peripherals International's ability to grow its EBIT nor its interest cover gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow tells a very different story, and suggests some resilience. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that CPI Computer Peripherals International is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. 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 2 warning signs with CPI Computer Peripherals International , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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