Stock Analysis

These 4 Measures Indicate That United Natural Foods (NYSE:UNFI) Is Using Debt Extensively

NYSE:UNFI
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Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that '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. We note that United Natural Foods, Inc. (NYSE:UNFI) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for United Natural Foods

What Is United Natural Foods's Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that United Natural Foods had US$2.08b of debt in January 2023, down from US$2.36b, one year before. On the flip side, it has US$57.0m in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.02b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:UNFI Debt to Equity History May 19th 2023

A Look At United Natural Foods' Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that United Natural Foods had liabilities of US$2.40b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$3.39b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$57.0m and US$997.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$4.74b.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$1.67b 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 definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, United Natural Foods would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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.

While United Natural Foods's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.3) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 2.2, suggesting high leverage. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Even worse, United Natural Foods saw its EBIT tank 33% over the last 12 months. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine United Natural Foods'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, 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, United Natural Foods produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 67% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

To be frank both United Natural Foods's EBIT growth rate 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 converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. We're quite clear that we consider United Natural Foods to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. 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. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that United Natural Foods is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those is a bit concerning...

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

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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.