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 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, Atal S.A. (WSE:1AT) 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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Atal Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Atal had debt of zł829.6m at the end of March 2021, a reduction from zł917.6m over a year. However, it also had zł185.1m in cash, and so its net debt is zł644.6m.
A Look At Atal's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Atal had liabilities of zł1.11b due within 12 months and liabilities of zł715.9m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of zł185.1m and zł30.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by zł1.62b.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of zł1.97b. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Atal's net debt is 2.8 times its EBITDA, which is a significant but still reasonable amount of leverage. But its EBIT was about 75.8 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. Pleasingly, Atal is growing its EBIT faster than former Australian PM Bob Hawke downs a yard glass, boasting a 114% gain in the last twelve months. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Atal can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Considering the last three years, Atal actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. 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.
While Atal's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow has us nervous. For example, its interest cover and EBIT growth rate give us some confidence in its ability to manage its debt. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Atal is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Be aware that Atal is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those can't be ignored...
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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