David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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. Importantly, Comvita Limited (NZSE:CVT) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Comvita Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Comvita had debt of NZ$28.3m at the end of December 2020, a reduction from NZ$103.4m over a year. However, it also had NZ$14.4m in cash, and so its net debt is NZ$13.9m.
How Healthy Is Comvita's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Comvita had liabilities of NZ$27.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of NZ$40.6m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of NZ$14.4m as well as receivables valued at NZ$32.9m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling NZ$20.4m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded Comvita shares are worth a total of NZ$215.6m, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
While Comvita's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.57 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 5.5 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Notably, Comvita made a loss at the EBIT level, last year, but improved that to positive EBIT of NZ$18m in the last twelve months. 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 Comvita'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.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it is important to check how much of its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) converts to actual free cash flow. Over the last year, Comvita actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
The good news is that Comvita's demonstrated ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And the good news does not stop there, as its net debt to EBITDA also supports that impression! When we consider the range of factors above, it looks like Comvita is pretty sensible with its use of debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Comvita that you should be aware of.
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
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