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 can see that Extended Stay America, Inc. (NASDAQ:STAY) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Extended Stay America's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Extended Stay America had US$2.40b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has US$288.4m in cash leading to net debt of about US$2.11b.
How Strong Is Extended Stay America's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Extended Stay America had liabilities of US$208.9m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$2.42b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$288.4m in cash and US$23.2m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$2.31b.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$2.76b. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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).
Extended Stay America's debt is 3.8 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.0 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. More concerning, Extended Stay America saw its EBIT drop by 8.1% in the last twelve months. If it keeps going like that paying off its debt will be like running on a treadmill -- a lot of effort for not much advancement. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Extended Stay America's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Extended Stay America recorded free cash flow worth 65% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
On the face of it, Extended Stay America's net debt to EBITDA left us tentative about the stock, and its interest cover was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Extended Stay America's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. Another positive for shareholders is that it pays dividends. So if you like receiving those dividend payments, check Extended Stay America's dividend history, without delay!
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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