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 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. We note that Etion Limited (JSE:ETO) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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 thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Etion's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Etion had R54.9m of debt at March 2021, down from R61.4m a year prior. But it also has R58.9m in cash to offset that, meaning it has R4.04m net cash.
How Strong Is Etion's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Etion had liabilities of R183.0m due within 12 months and liabilities of R74.9m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of R58.9m as well as receivables valued at R141.7m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total R57.2m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Etion has a market capitalization of R254.0m, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution. Despite its noteworthy liabilities, Etion boasts net cash, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!
We also note that Etion improved its EBIT from a last year's loss to a positive R5.6m. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since Etion 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. While Etion has net cash on its balance sheet, it's still worth taking a look at its ability to convert earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to free cash flow, to help us understand how quickly it is building (or eroding) that cash balance. Over the last year, Etion actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
While Etion does have more liabilities than liquid assets, it also has net cash of R4.04m. And it impressed us with free cash flow of R52m, being 940% of its EBIT. So we are not troubled with Etion's debt use. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. To that end, you should learn about the 3 warning signs we've spotted with Etion (including 1 which is potentially serious) .
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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