Stock Analysis

Is Sanford (NZSE:SAN) A Risky Investment?

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NZSE:SAN
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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 might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Sanford Limited (NZSE:SAN) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

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What Is Sanford's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2020 Sanford had debt of NZ$187.2m, up from NZ$139.0m in one year. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NZSE:SAN Debt to Equity History November 18th 2020

A Look At Sanford's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Sanford had liabilities of NZ$120.8m falling due within a year, and liabilities of NZ$199.5m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of NZ$2.96m as well as receivables valued at NZ$67.3m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by NZ$250.0m.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Sanford has a market capitalization of NZ$483.4m, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. 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.

Sanford's debt is 3.2 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.8 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Worse, Sanford's EBIT was down 44% over the last year. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Sanford'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. In the last three years, Sanford's free cash flow amounted to 36% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

Mulling over Sanford's attempt at (not) growing its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is not so bad. Overall, we think it's fair to say that Sanford has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that Sanford is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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