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 seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. As with many other companies Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Rite Aid's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Rite Aid had debt of US$3.20b at the end of November 2020, a reduction from US$3.57b over a year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is Rite Aid's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Rite Aid had liabilities of US$2.66b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$6.16b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$50.8m in cash and US$1.77b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$7.00b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$1.51b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. At the end of the day, Rite Aid would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
Weak interest cover of 1.4 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.1 hit our confidence in Rite Aid like a one-two punch to the gut. The debt burden here is substantial. The silver lining is that Rite Aid grew its EBIT by 124% 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 ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Rite Aid 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Rite Aid burned a lot of cash. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
To be frank both Rite Aid's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. Overall, it seems to us that Rite Aid's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. 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. We've identified 3 warning signs with Rite Aid (at least 1 which is potentially serious) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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