Stock Analysis

Putprop (JSE:PPR) Seems To Be Using A Lot Of Debt

JSE:PPR
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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. Importantly, Putprop Limited (JSE:PPR) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

Check out our latest analysis for Putprop

How Much Debt Does Putprop Carry?

As you can see below, Putprop had R133.9m of debt at December 2020, down from R139.5m a year prior. On the flip side, it has R6.21m in cash leading to net debt of about R127.6m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
JSE:PPR Debt to Equity History May 19th 2021

A Look At Putprop's Liabilities

According to the last reported balance sheet, Putprop had liabilities of R21.8m due within 12 months, and liabilities of R164.6m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had R6.21m in cash and R14.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling R166.3m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's R133.6m market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

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).

Putprop has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.7 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 4.1 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Worse, Putprop's EBIT was down 51% over the last year. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is Putprop'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.

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. In the last three years, Putprop's free cash flow amounted to 36% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

We'd go so far as to say Putprop's EBIT growth rate was disappointing. Having said that, its ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow isn't such a worry. Overall, it seems to us that Putprop's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. 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. For example, we've discovered 5 warning signs for Putprop (2 are a bit concerning!) that you should be aware of before investing here.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

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