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. We note that Essity AB (publ) (STO:ESSITY B) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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.
How Much Debt Does Essity Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2021 Essity had debt of kr64.2b, up from kr49.2b in one year. On the flip side, it has kr10.1b in cash leading to net debt of about kr54.1b.
How Healthy Is Essity's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Essity had liabilities of kr49.2b falling due within a year, and liabilities of kr61.7b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had kr10.1b in cash and kr25.3b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by kr75.6b.
Essity has a very large market capitalization of kr199.4b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
Essity has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.5, which signals significant debt, but is still pretty reasonable for most types of business. However, its interest coverage of 22.6 is very high, suggesting that the interest expense on the debt is currently quite low. Unfortunately, Essity's EBIT flopped 17% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. 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 Essity'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Essity produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 71% 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.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Essity was the fact that it seems able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. To be specific, it seems about as good at (not) growing its EBIT as wet socks are at keeping your feet warm. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Essity's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. 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. Be aware that Essity is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.