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.' 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, Mercuries Data Systems Ltd. (TPE:2427) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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.
How Much Debt Does Mercuries Data Systems Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Mercuries Data Systems had debt of NT$990.0m at the end of December 2020, a reduction from NT$1.10b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of NT$492.3m, its net debt is less, at about NT$497.8m.
A Look At Mercuries Data Systems' Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Mercuries Data Systems had liabilities of NT$2.05b falling due within a year, and liabilities of NT$123.7m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of NT$492.3m as well as receivables valued at NT$858.8m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by NT$824.8m.
This deficit isn't so bad because Mercuries Data Systems is worth NT$2.17b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Mercuries Data Systems's net debt is 3.5 times its EBITDA, which is a significant but still reasonable amount of leverage. But its EBIT was about 112 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. Notably, Mercuries Data Systems's EBIT launched higher than Elon Musk, gaining a whopping 105% on last year. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since Mercuries Data Systems will need earnings to service that debt. So if you're keen to discover more about its earnings, it might be worth checking out this graph of its long term earnings trend.
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. Happily for any shareholders, Mercuries Data Systems actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Mercuries Data Systems's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its net debt to EBITDA. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Mercuries Data Systems's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. 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. For example, we've discovered 3 warning signs for Mercuries Data Systems that you should be aware of before investing here.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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