Is Akzo Nobel (AMS:AKZA) Using Too Much Debt?

August 12, 2022
  •  Updated
November 22, 2022
ENXTAM:AKZA
Source: Shutterstock

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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. As with many other companies Akzo Nobel N.V. (AMS:AKZA) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Akzo Nobel

What Is Akzo Nobel's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2022 Akzo Nobel had debt of €5.72b, up from €3.37b in one year. However, it does have €1.86b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about €3.87b.

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ENXTAM:AKZA Debt to Equity History August 12th 2022

How Healthy Is Akzo Nobel's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Akzo Nobel had liabilities of €6.02b due within a year, and liabilities of €4.73b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €1.86b as well as receivables valued at €3.06b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total €5.84b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit isn't so bad because Akzo Nobel is worth a massive €12.0b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

Akzo Nobel has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.5, which signals significant debt, but is still pretty reasonable for most types of business. But its EBIT was about 12.3 times its interest expense, implying the company isn't really paying a high cost to maintain that level of debt. Even were the low cost to prove unsustainable, that is a good sign. Importantly, Akzo Nobel's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 33% 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. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Akzo Nobel'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Akzo Nobel produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 56% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Akzo Nobel's EBIT growth rate and net debt to EBITDA definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But the good news is it seems to be able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT with ease. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Akzo Nobel is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. 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 instance, we've identified 3 warning signs for Akzo Nobel (1 is a bit unpleasant) you should be aware of.

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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