Stock Analysis

Is Shenzhen Expressway (HKG:548) A Risky Investment?

SEHK:548
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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 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 Shenzhen Expressway Company Limited (HKG:548) makes use of debt. 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. 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. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Shenzhen Expressway

What Is Shenzhen Expressway's Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of September 2020, Shenzhen Expressway had CN¥20.2b of debt, up from CN¥14.5b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have CN¥4.98b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CN¥15.2b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
SEHK:548 Debt to Equity History March 5th 2021

How Strong Is Shenzhen Expressway's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Shenzhen Expressway had liabilities of CN¥12.1b due within a year, and liabilities of CN¥18.6b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of CN¥4.98b and CN¥2.26b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling CN¥23.5b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's CN¥17.0b 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 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). 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).

As it happens Shenzhen Expressway has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.9 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. Importantly, Shenzhen Expressway's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 52% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues then paying off its debt will be about as easy as herding cats on to a roller coaster. 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 Shenzhen Expressway 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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Shenzhen Expressway recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is far more risky for companies with unreliable free cash flow, so shareholders should be hoping that the past expenditure will produce free cash flow in the future.

Our View

To be frank both Shenzhen Expressway's net debt to EBITDA and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT 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. We should also note that Infrastructure industry companies like Shenzhen Expressway commonly do use debt without problems. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Shenzhen Expressway has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. 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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 4 warning signs for Shenzhen Expressway (of which 1 is a bit concerning!) you should know about.

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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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. 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.
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