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 Kraton Corporation (NYSE:KRA) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Kraton Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Kraton had debt of US$914.0m at the end of June 2021, a reduction from US$1.01b over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$58.1m, its net debt is less, at about US$855.9m.
A Look At Kraton's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Kraton had liabilities of US$475.6m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.33b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$58.1m as well as receivables valued at US$257.6m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.49b.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$1.24b 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.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Kraton has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.2 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 2.9 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. However, it should be some comfort for shareholders to recall that Kraton actually grew its EBIT by a hefty 106%, over the last 12 months. 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 Kraton 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. 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, Kraton produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 78% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Both Kraton's ability to to grow its EBIT and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. But truth be told its level of total liabilities had us nibbling our nails. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Kraton's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. 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. We've identified 1 warning sign with Kraton , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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