Stock Analysis

Here's Why Noodles (NASDAQ:NDLS) Has A Meaningful Debt Burden

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NasdaqGS:NDLS
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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, Noodles & Company (NASDAQ:NDLS) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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 step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Noodles

What Is Noodles's Net Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of October 2023, Noodles had US$64.0m of debt, up from US$36.1m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$2.53m in cash, and so its net debt is US$61.5m.

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NasdaqGS:NDLS Debt to Equity History January 12th 2024

A Look At Noodles' Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that Noodles had liabilities of US$75.6m due within a year, and liabilities of US$260.7m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$2.53m and US$5.14m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$328.6m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$124.0m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, Noodles would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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).

While Noodles has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 1.9, its interest cover seems weak, at 2.0. The main reason for this is that it has such high depreciation and amortisation. These charges may be non-cash, so they could be excluded when it comes to paying down debt. But the accounting charges are there for a reason -- some assets are seen to be losing value. Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Pleasingly, Noodles is growing its EBIT faster than former Australian PM Bob Hawke downs a yard glass, boasting a 519% gain in the last twelve months. 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 Noodles'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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Noodles 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.

Our View

To be frank both Noodles'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 on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We're quite clear that we consider Noodles 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with Noodles (at least 1 which doesn't sit too well with us) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

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

Find out whether Noodles 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.

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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.