Stepan (NYSE:SCL) Seems To Use Debt Quite Sensibly

By
Simply Wall St
Published
May 14, 2022
NYSE:SCL
Source: Shutterstock

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 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. As with many other companies Stepan Company (NYSE:SCL) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Stepan

How Much Debt Does Stepan Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2022 Stepan had debt of US$537.1m, up from US$248.4m in one year. However, it does have US$236.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$301.1m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:SCL Debt to Equity History May 14th 2022

A Look At Stepan's Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, Stepan had liabilities of US$611.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$544.8m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$236.0m as well as receivables valued at US$504.5m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$415.3m.

Since publicly traded Stepan shares are worth a total of US$2.36b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.

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.

Stepan has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.1. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 28.8 times over. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. And we also note warmly that Stepan grew its EBIT by 11% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Stepan can strengthen its balance sheet over time. 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 the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Stepan created free cash flow amounting to 7.1% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.

Our View

When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Stepan was the fact that it seems able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For instance it seems like it has to struggle a bit to convert EBIT to free cash flow. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Stepan 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. 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. We've identified 1 warning sign with Stepan , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

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.

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