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 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 Greif, Inc. (NYSE:GEF) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Greif's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Greif had debt of US$2.32b at the end of April 2021, a reduction from US$2.73b over a year. However, it also had US$110.4m in cash, and so its net debt is US$2.21b.
How Healthy Is Greif's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Greif had liabilities of US$1.11b due within a year, and liabilities of US$3.03b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$110.4m as well as receivables valued at US$751.1m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.28b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$3.07b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.
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.
Greif's debt is 3.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.6 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Another concern for investors might be that Greif's EBIT fell 19% in the last year. If that's the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Greif 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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Greif 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.
We'd go so far as to say Greif's EBIT growth rate was disappointing. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Greif's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. 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 - Greif has 1 warning sign we think you should be aware of.
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.
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