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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Unimicron Technology Corp. (TPE:3037) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Unimicron Technology Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2020 Unimicron Technology had debt of NT$39.5b, up from NT$35.9b in one year. However, it does have NT$23.4b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about NT$16.1b.
How Healthy Is Unimicron Technology's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Unimicron Technology had liabilities of NT$38.8b falling due within a year, and liabilities of NT$28.8b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had NT$23.4b in cash and NT$18.7b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by NT$25.5b.
Given Unimicron Technology has a market capitalization of NT$146.6b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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.
Unimicron Technology has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.3. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 19.4 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Another good sign is that Unimicron Technology has been able to increase its EBIT by 23% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Unimicron Technology'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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Unimicron Technology recorded free cash flow of 31% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Unimicron Technology'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 truth be told we feel its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow does undermine this impression a bit. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Unimicron Technology takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. 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 Unimicron Technology that you should be aware of before investing here.
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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