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.' 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 South Ocean Holdings Limited (JSE:SOH) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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.
What Is South Ocean Holdings's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that South Ocean Holdings had debt of R43.9m at the end of December 2020, a reduction from R75.0m over a year. However, because it has a cash reserve of R21.0m, its net debt is less, at about R22.9m.
How Healthy Is South Ocean Holdings' Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that South Ocean Holdings had liabilities of R136.6m falling due within a year, and liabilities of R59.5m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had R21.0m in cash and R258.5m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it can boast R83.4m more liquid assets than total liabilities.
This surplus strongly suggests that South Ocean Holdings has a rock-solid balance sheet (and the debt is of no concern whatsoever). Having regard to this fact, we think its balance sheet is as strong as an ox.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
While South Ocean Holdings's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.44 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.8 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Notably, South Ocean Holdings made a loss at the EBIT level, last year, but improved that to positive EBIT of R35m in the last twelve months. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is South Ocean Holdings's earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So when considering debt, it's definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it is important to check how much of its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) converts to actual free cash flow. During the last year, South Ocean Holdings burned a lot of cash. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
South Ocean Holdings's level of total liabilities 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 conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. All these things considered, it appears that South Ocean Holdings can comfortably handle its current debt levels. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 3 warning signs for South Ocean Holdings that you should be aware of.
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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