Stock Analysis

VSE (NASDAQ:VSEC) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

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NasdaqGS:VSEC
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. As with many other companies VSE Corporation (NASDAQ:VSEC) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

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What Is VSE's Net Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2022 VSE had debt of US$308.6m, up from US$275.9m in one year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NasdaqGS:VSEC Debt to Equity History September 2nd 2022

A Look At VSE's Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that VSE had liabilities of US$176.6m due within a year, and liabilities of US$339.3m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$371.0k and US$143.5m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$372.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$529.2m. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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). 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).

VSE has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.0 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.7 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. The silver lining is that VSE grew its EBIT by 116% last year, which nourishing like the idealism of youth. If it can keep walking that path it will be in a position to shed its debt with relative ease. 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 VSE'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's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Considering the last three years, VSE actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is far more risky for companies with unreliable free cash flow, so shareholders should be hoping that the past expenditure will produce free cash flow in the future.

Our View

Neither VSE's ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow nor its net debt to EBITDA gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But its EBIT growth rate tells a very different story, and suggests some resilience. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that VSE is taking some risks with its use of debt. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 1 warning sign for VSE that you should be aware of.

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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