Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. Importantly, Euroseas Ltd. (NASDAQ:ESEA) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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, 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 Euroseas Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Euroseas had debt of US$65.0m at the end of March 2021, a reduction from US$86.3m over a year. However, it does have US$3.63m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$61.3m.
How Strong Is Euroseas' Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Euroseas had liabilities of US$27.9m due within a year, and liabilities of US$43.6m falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$3.63m as well as receivables valued at US$3.49m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$64.4m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Euroseas has a market capitalization of US$157.1m, 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.
Weak interest cover of 1.5 times and a disturbingly high net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.7 hit our confidence in Euroseas like a one-two punch to the gut. This means we'd consider it to have a heavy debt load. On a slightly more positive note, Euroseas grew its EBIT at 13% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. 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 Euroseas 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Euroseas burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
On the face of it, Euroseas'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. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Euroseas'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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 5 warning signs for Euroseas (of which 1 shouldn't be ignored!) you should know about.
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.
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