Stock Analysis

Is El Pollo Loco Holdings (NASDAQ:LOCO) Using Too Much Debt?

Source: Shutterstock

Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. Importantly, El Pollo Loco Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:LOCO) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for El Pollo Loco Holdings

How Much Debt Does El Pollo Loco Holdings Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2023 El Pollo Loco Holdings had debt of US$58.0m, up from US$40.0m in one year. However, it also had US$4.79m in cash, and so its net debt is US$53.2m.

NasdaqGS:LOCO Debt to Equity History July 12th 2023

How Healthy Is El Pollo Loco Holdings' Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, El Pollo Loco Holdings had liabilities of US$64.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$245.7m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$4.79m as well as receivables valued at US$12.3m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$292.7m.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$358.8m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on El Pollo Loco Holdings' use of debt. 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

El Pollo Loco Holdings's net debt is only 1.1 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 14.9 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. In fact El Pollo Loco Holdings's saving grace is its low debt levels, because its EBIT has tanked 20% in the last twelve months. When it comes to paying off debt, falling earnings are no more useful than sugary sodas are for your health. 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 El Pollo Loco Holdings can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, El Pollo Loco Holdings recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 83% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.

Our View

We feel some trepidation about El Pollo Loco Holdings's difficulty EBIT growth rate, but we've got positives to focus on, too. To wit both its interest cover and conversion of EBIT to free cash flow were encouraging signs. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that El Pollo Loco Holdings is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of El Pollo Loco Holdings's earnings per share history for free.

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.

Find out whether El Pollo Loco Holdings is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

View the Free Analysis

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at)

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.