Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. We can see that AgroFresh Solutions, Inc. (NASDAQ:AGFS) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is AgroFresh Solutions's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that AgroFresh Solutions had debt of US$269.6m at the end of September 2020, a reduction from US$404.6m over a year. On the flip side, it has US$25.1m in cash leading to net debt of about US$244.5m.
How Strong Is AgroFresh Solutions' Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, AgroFresh Solutions had liabilities of US$51.4m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$306.4m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$25.1m as well as receivables valued at US$77.2m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$255.5m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$106.6m 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'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, AgroFresh Solutions would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
While we wouldn't worry about AgroFresh Solutions's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.4, we think its super-low interest cover of 0.90 times is a sign of high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. The silver lining is that AgroFresh Solutions grew its EBIT by 347% last year, which nourishing like the idealism of youth. If it can keep walking that path it will be in a position to shed its debt with relative ease. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if AgroFresh Solutions 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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, AgroFresh Solutions recorded free cash flow worth 68% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
To be frank both AgroFresh Solutions's interest cover 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 growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making AgroFresh Solutions stock a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. 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. Take risks, for example - AgroFresh Solutions has 2 warning signs we think you should be aware of.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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