David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' 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. Importantly, The St. Joe Company (NYSE:JOE) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does St. Joe Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2020 St. Joe had debt of US$319.7m, up from US$262.5m in one year. However, it does have US$102.4m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$217.4m.
How Strong Is St. Joe's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, St. Joe had liabilities of US$35.7m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$415.8m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$102.4m as well as receivables valued at US$37.4m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$311.8m.
Since publicly traded St. Joe shares are worth a total of US$1.63b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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). 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).
St. Joe's debt is 4.6 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.2 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. However, it should be some comfort for shareholders to recall that St. Joe actually grew its EBIT by a hefty 131%, 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. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since St. Joe will need earnings to service that debt. So if you're keen to discover more about its earnings, it might be worth checking out this graph of its long term earnings trend.
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. Happily for any shareholders, St. Joe actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
St. Joe's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But the stark truth is that we are concerned by its net debt to EBITDA. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that St. Joe takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example, we've discovered 3 warning signs for St. Joe (1 makes us a bit uncomfortable!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
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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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. 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.
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