Is Subsea 7 (OB:SUBC) Using Too Much Debt?

August 11, 2022
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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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Subsea 7 S.A. (OB:SUBC) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Subsea 7

What Is Subsea 7's Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2022, Subsea 7 had US$368.0m of debt, up from US$196.7m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. But it also has US$463.9m in cash to offset that, meaning it has US$95.9m net cash.

OB:SUBC Debt to Equity History August 11th 2022

How Strong Is Subsea 7's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Subsea 7 had liabilities of US$2.09b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$602.1m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$463.9m and US$1.99b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$246.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Of course, Subsea 7 has a market capitalization of US$2.61b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward. Despite its noteworthy liabilities, Subsea 7 boasts net cash, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!

Importantly, Subsea 7's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 58% 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. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Subsea 7'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. While Subsea 7 has net cash on its balance sheet, it's still worth taking a look at its ability to convert earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to free cash flow, to help us understand how quickly it is building (or eroding) that cash balance. During the last two years, Subsea 7 produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 69% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Summing Up

While it is always sensible to look at a company's total liabilities, it is very reassuring that Subsea 7 has US$95.9m in net cash. And it impressed us with free cash flow of US$127m, being 69% of its EBIT. So we don't have any problem with Subsea 7's use of debt. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Subsea 7 insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.

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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