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These 4 Measures Indicate That Imperial Brands (LON:IMB) Is Using Debt Reasonably Well

Simply Wall St

David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital.' 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. As with many other companies Imperial Brands PLC (LON:IMB) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Imperial Brands

What Is Imperial Brands's Net Debt?

As you can see below, Imperial Brands had UK£13.3b of debt, at March 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had UK£539.0m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£12.8b.

LSE:IMB Historical Debt, August 16th 2019

A Look At Imperial Brands's Liabilities

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Imperial Brands had liabilities of UK£11.4b falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£13.6b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£539.0m as well as receivables valued at UK£3.11b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£21.4b.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's massive market capitalization of UK£19.8b, we think shareholders really should watch Imperial Brands's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

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).

Imperial Brands's net debt is 3.1 times its EBITDA, which is a significant but still reasonable amount of leverage. However, its interest coverage of 1k is very high, suggesting that the interest expense may well rise in the future, even if there hasn't yet been a major cost attached to that debt. We note that Imperial Brands grew its EBIT by 29% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Imperial Brands can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Imperial Brands actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.

Our View

Imperial Brands's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But we must concede we find its level of total liabilities has the opposite effect. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Imperial Brands can handle its debt fairly comfortably. 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. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Imperial Brands insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.

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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.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. Thank you for reading.