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, Summit Materials, Inc. (NYSE:SUM) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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, 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.
What Is Summit Materials's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Summit Materials had US$1.90b in debt in July 2021; about the same as the year before. However, it does have US$469.1m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$1.43b.
How Strong Is Summit Materials' Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Summit Materials had liabilities of US$341.9m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.42b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$469.1m as well as receivables valued at US$345.3m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$1.94b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because Summit Materials is worth US$3.73b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without 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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
While Summit Materials's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.0) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 2.4, suggesting 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. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Notably, Summit Materials's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year, which isn't ideal given the debt load. 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 Summit Materials'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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Summit Materials recorded free cash flow worth 78% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Summit Materials was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. To be specific, it seems about as good at covering its interest expense with its EBIT as wet socks are at keeping your feet warm. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Summit Materials's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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. Be aware that Summit Materials is showing 4 warning signs in our investment analysis , and 1 of those makes us a bit uncomfortable...
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.
If you decide to trade Summit Materials, use the lowest-cost* platform that is rated #1 Overall by Barron’s, Interactive Brokers. Trade stocks, options, futures, forex, bonds and funds on 135 markets, all from a single integrated account. Promoted
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.
*Interactive Brokers Rated Lowest Cost Broker by StockBrokers.com Annual Online Review 2020
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.