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.' 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 China Mengniu Dairy Company Limited (HKG:2319) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is China Mengniu Dairy's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that China Mengniu Dairy had CN¥23.0b of debt in June 2021, down from CN¥29.2b, one year before. However, it does have CN¥13.7b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CN¥9.34b.
How Healthy Is China Mengniu Dairy's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that China Mengniu Dairy had liabilities of CN¥27.6b due within 12 months and liabilities of CN¥19.1b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CN¥13.7b and CN¥4.67b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling CN¥28.4b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given China Mengniu Dairy has a humongous market capitalization of CN¥147.4b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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).
We'd say that China Mengniu Dairy's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.6), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its commanding EBIT of 1k times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. In addition to that, we're happy to report that China Mengniu Dairy has boosted its EBIT by 64%, thus reducing the spectre of future debt repayments. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if China Mengniu Dairy 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. 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, China Mengniu Dairy reported free cash flow worth 8.9% of its EBIT, which is really quite low. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.
Happily, China Mengniu Dairy's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But we must concede we find its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow has the opposite effect. All these things considered, it appears that China Mengniu Dairy can comfortably handle its current debt levels. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of China Mengniu Dairy's earnings per share history for free.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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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.