Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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. As with many other companies Ecovyst Inc. (NYSE:ECVT) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Ecovyst's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Ecovyst had debt of US$880.4m at the end of March 2022, a reduction from US$1.40b over a year. On the flip side, it has US$132.7m in cash leading to net debt of about US$747.7m.
How Strong Is Ecovyst's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Ecovyst had liabilities of US$113.1m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.06b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$132.7m and US$91.1m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$945.8m.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$1.40b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Ecovyst's use of debt. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
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 Ecovyst's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.8, we think its super-low interest cover of 2.2 times is a sign of high leverage. 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. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Looking on the bright side, Ecovyst boosted its EBIT by a silky 43% in the last year. Like the milk of human kindness that sort of growth increases resilience, making the company more capable of managing debt. 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 Ecovyst'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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Ecovyst actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Ecovyst's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was a real positive on this analysis, as was its EBIT growth rate. In contrast, our confidence was undermined by its apparent struggle to cover its interest expense with its EBIT. Considering this range of data points, we think Ecovyst is in a good position to manage its debt levels. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. 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. For example, we've discovered 4 warning signs for Ecovyst (1 is significant!) 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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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.