These 4 Measures Indicate That GDS Holdings (NASDAQ:GDS) Is Using Debt Extensively

By
Simply Wall St
Published
February 18, 2022
NasdaqGM:GDS
Source: Shutterstock

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.' 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 note that GDS Holdings Limited (NASDAQ:GDS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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 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, 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

See our latest analysis for GDS Holdings

What Is GDS Holdings's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2021 GDS Holdings had CN¥20.9b of debt, an increase on CN¥13.9b, over one year. However, it also had CN¥10.1b in cash, and so its net debt is CN¥10.8b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NasdaqGM:GDS Debt to Equity History February 18th 2022

How Healthy Is GDS Holdings' Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that GDS Holdings had liabilities of CN¥8.92b due within 12 months and liabilities of CN¥29.4b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CN¥10.1b as well as receivables valued at CN¥2.05b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CN¥26.1b.

GDS Holdings has a market capitalization of CN¥50.9b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

While GDS Holdings's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.7) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 0.37, 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. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that GDS Holdings saw its EBIT drop by 11% over the last twelve months. If things keep going like that, handling the debt will about as easy as bundling an angry house cat into its travel box. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if GDS Holdings 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.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, GDS Holdings burned a lot of cash. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, GDS Holdings's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. Having said that, its ability to handle its total liabilities isn't such a worry. We're quite clear that we consider GDS Holdings to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. 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. Case in point: We've spotted 2 warning signs for GDS Holdings you should be aware of.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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