Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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 note that Quess Corp Limited (NSE:QUESS) 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 assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Quess Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2021 Quess had debt of ₹6.92b, up from ₹4.70b in one year. However, it does have ₹5.93b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about ₹983.2m.
How Healthy Is Quess' Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Quess had liabilities of ₹21.7b due within a year, and liabilities of ₹4.23b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had ₹5.93b in cash and ₹20.6b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it actually has ₹605.4m more liquid assets than total liabilities.
This state of affairs indicates that Quess' balance sheet looks quite solid, as its total liabilities are just about equal to its liquid assets. So while it's hard to imagine that the ₹109.5b company is struggling for cash, we still think it's worth monitoring its balance sheet. Carrying virtually no net debt, Quess has a very light debt load indeed.
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).
While Quess's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.32 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 6.3 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. The modesty of its debt load may become crucial for Quess if management cannot prevent a repeat of the 37% cut to EBIT over the last year. Falling earnings (if the trend continues) could eventually make even modest debt quite risky. 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 Quess 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. Happily for any shareholders, Quess actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
The good news is that Quess's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its EBIT growth rate. All these things considered, it appears that Quess can comfortably handle its current debt levels. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it's worth keeping an eye on this one. 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. Be aware that Quess is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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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.