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.' 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. Importantly, Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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 usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Darden Restaurants's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Darden Restaurants had US$929.4m in debt in November 2020; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$777.3m, its net debt is less, at about US$152.1m.
A Look At Darden Restaurants' Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Darden Restaurants had liabilities of US$1.55b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$5.93b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$777.3m in cash and US$45.7m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$6.65b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Darden Restaurants has a very large market capitalization of US$18.2b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk. But either way, Darden Restaurants has virtually no net debt, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). 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).
Given net debt is only 0.35 times EBITDA, it is initially surprising to see that Darden Restaurants's EBIT has low interest coverage of 1.7 times. So one way or the other, it's clear the debt levels are not trivial. Shareholders should be aware that Darden Restaurants's EBIT was down 88% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Darden Restaurants'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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Darden Restaurants actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
We feel some trepidation about Darden Restaurants's difficulty EBIT growth rate, but we've got positives to focus on, too. To wit both its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and net debt to EBITDA were encouraging signs. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Darden Restaurants 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. 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 example, we've discovered 2 warning signs for Darden Restaurants that you should be aware of before investing here.
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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