Is WH Group (HKG:288) Using Too Much Debt?

By
Simply Wall St
Published
August 17, 2021
SEHK:288
Source: Shutterstock

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 WH Group Limited (HKG:288) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for WH Group

How Much Debt Does WH Group Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that WH Group had US$2.85b of debt in June 2021, down from US$3.11b, one year before. However, it does have US$2.24b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$616.0m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
SEHK:288 Debt to Equity History August 17th 2021

A Look At WH Group's Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, WH Group had liabilities of US$5.01b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$3.34b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$2.24b as well as receivables valued at US$1.21b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$4.91b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

WH Group has a very large market capitalization of US$12.7b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

WH Group has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.35. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 10.5 times over. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. In fact WH Group's saving grace is its low debt levels, because its EBIT has tanked 38% in the last twelve months. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if WH Group can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

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. During the last three years, WH Group produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 72% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Based on what we've seen WH Group is not finding it easy, given its EBIT growth rate, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. In particular, we are dazzled with its net debt to EBITDA. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about WH Group's debt levels. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with WH Group , 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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