Stock Analysis

SK hynix (KRX:000660) Seems To Use Debt Quite Sensibly

KOSE:A000660
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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 SK hynix, Inc. (KRX:000660) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

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. 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, 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

See our latest analysis for SK hynix

What Is SK hynix's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of December 2020 SK hynix had ₩11t of debt, an increase on ₩11t, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of ₩4.63t, its net debt is less, at about ₩6.69t.

debt-equity-history-analysis
KOSE:A000660 Debt to Equity History March 18th 2021

How Healthy Is SK hynix's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that SK hynix had liabilities of ₩9.07t due within a year, and liabilities of ₩10t falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had ₩4.63t in cash and ₩5.24t in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling ₩9.39t more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Of course, SK hynix has a titanic market capitalization of ₩96t, so these liabilities are probably manageable. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.

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.

SK hynix has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.48. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 22.4 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. On top of that, SK hynix grew its EBIT by 85% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine SK hynix's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. Over the last three years, SK hynix recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.

Our View

Happily, SK hynix's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like SK hynix is pretty sensible with its use of debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example, we've discovered 2 warning signs for SK hynix that you should be aware of before investing here.

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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