Stock Analysis

These 4 Measures Indicate That STERIS (NYSE:STE) Is Using Debt Reasonably Well

NYSE:STE
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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.' 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 STERIS plc (NYSE:STE) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

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How Much Debt Does STERIS Carry?

As you can see below, STERIS had US$3.02b of debt at September 2022, down from US$3.44b a year prior. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$258.3m, its net debt is less, at about US$2.77b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:STE Debt to Equity History February 1st 2023

A Look At STERIS' Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, STERIS had liabilities of US$872.8m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$3.80b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$258.3m in cash and US$780.1m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$3.64b.

Since publicly traded STERIS shares are worth a very impressive total of US$20.6b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

STERIS has net debt worth 2.2 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 6.9 times the interest expense. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. Sadly, STERIS's EBIT actually dropped 9.8% in the last year. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if STERIS 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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, STERIS produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 64% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

On our analysis STERIS's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow should signal that it won't have too much trouble with its debt. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For example, its EBIT growth rate makes us a little nervous about its debt. It's also worth noting that STERIS is in the Medical Equipment industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that STERIS is managing its debt quite well. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. 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. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for STERIS that you should be aware of.

When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.

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

Find out whether STERIS 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.