Stock Analysis

Sonoco Products (NYSE:SON) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

NYSE:SON
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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.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. Importantly, Sonoco Products Company (NYSE:SON) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Sonoco Products

How Much Debt Does Sonoco Products Carry?

As you can see below, at the end of April 2022, Sonoco Products had US$3.06b of debt, up from US$1.65b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. On the flip side, it has US$151.5m in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.91b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:SON Debt to Equity History July 20th 2022

How Healthy Is Sonoco Products' Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Sonoco Products had liabilities of US$1.72b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$3.32b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$151.5m and US$1.11b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$3.77b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$5.77b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Sonoco Products' use of debt. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Weak interest cover of 0.74 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 9.9 hit our confidence in Sonoco Products like a one-two punch to the gut. The debt burden here is substantial. Even worse, Sonoco Products saw its EBIT tank 91% over the last 12 months. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Sonoco Products's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

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 most recent three years, Sonoco Products recorded free cash flow worth 64% 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.

Our View

To be frank both Sonoco Products's interest cover and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Sonoco Products's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Sonoco Products .

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.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

Find out whether Sonoco Products is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

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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.