Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about. When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We note that Great Wall Motor Company Limited (HKG:2333) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Great Wall Motor Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Great Wall Motor had debt of CN¥5.14b at the end of September 2019, a reduction from CN¥19.8b over a year. However, it does have CN¥13.8b in cash offsetting this, leading to net cash of CN¥8.69b.
A Look At Great Wall Motor's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Great Wall Motor had liabilities of CN¥38.7b due within 12 months and liabilities of CN¥7.14b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CN¥13.8b in cash and CN¥23.7b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CN¥8.37b.
Since publicly traded Great Wall Motor shares are worth a very impressive total of CN¥73.0b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse. While it does have liabilities worth noting, Great Wall Motor also has more cash than debt, so we're pretty confident it can manage its debt safely.
In fact Great Wall Motor's saving grace is its low debt levels, because its EBIT has tanked 47% in the last twelve months. Falling earnings (if the trend continues) could eventually make even modest debt quite risky. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Great Wall Motor 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. While Great Wall Motor 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 most recent three years, Great Wall Motor recorded free cash flow worth 58% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Although Great Wall Motor's balance sheet isn't particularly strong, due to the total liabilities, it is clearly positive to see that it has net cash of CN¥8.69b. So we don't have any problem with Great Wall Motor's use of debt. Given Great Wall Motor has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.
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.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.
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