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. We note that Ascopiave S.p.A. (BIT:ASC) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Ascopiave Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at December 2020 Ascopiave had debt of €363.1m, up from €288.9m in one year. On the flip side, it has €22.7m in cash leading to net debt of about €340.4m.
How Healthy Is Ascopiave's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Ascopiave had liabilities of €265.6m due within a year, and liabilities of €243.6m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of €22.7m and €37.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total €449.3m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn't so bad because Ascopiave is worth €837.3m, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up 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.
As it happens Ascopiave has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.4 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. It is well worth noting that Ascopiave's EBIT shot up like bamboo after rain, gaining 30% in the last twelve months. That'll make it easier to manage its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Ascopiave 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.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, Ascopiave's free cash flow amounted to 38% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
Both Ascopiave's ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT and its EBIT growth rate gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. But truth be told its net debt to EBITDA had us nibbling our nails. It's also worth noting that Ascopiave is in the Gas Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Ascopiave is managing its debt quite well. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example Ascopiave has 3 warning signs (and 2 which shouldn't be ignored) we think 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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