Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. As with many other companies Tata Chemicals Limited (NSE:TATACHEM) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. 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. 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 step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Tata Chemicals Carry?
As you can see below, Tata Chemicals had ₹67.1b of debt at March 2021, down from ₹75.2b a year prior. On the flip side, it has ₹29.6b in cash leading to net debt of about ₹37.5b.
How Strong Is Tata Chemicals' Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Tata Chemicals had liabilities of ₹44.6b falling due within a year, and liabilities of ₹87.3b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had ₹29.6b in cash and ₹17.5b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by ₹84.9b.
Tata Chemicals has a market capitalization of ₹196.7b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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.
Tata Chemicals has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.6 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 4.2 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Importantly, Tata Chemicals's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 39% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Tata Chemicals's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Tata Chemicals recorded free cash flow worth 55% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Mulling over Tata Chemicals's attempt at (not) growing its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Tata Chemicals's debt is making it a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. 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. Case in point: We've spotted 3 warning signs for Tata Chemicals you should be aware of.
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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