Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 Intertek Group plc (LON:ITRK) 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 is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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.
What Is Intertek Group's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Intertek Group had debt of UK£1.05b, up from UK£740.8m in one year. However, it does have UK£220.5m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about UK£826.3m.
How Healthy Is Intertek Group's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Intertek Group had liabilities of UK£736.6m due within 12 months and liabilities of UK£1.26b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£220.5m as well as receivables valued at UK£750.5m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total UK£1.02b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Of course, Intertek Group has a titanic market capitalization of UK£8.80b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Intertek Group has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.3. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 14.0 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. The good news is that Intertek Group has increased its EBIT by 4.9% over twelve months, which should ease any concerns about debt repayment. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Intertek Group's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Intertek Group recorded free cash flow worth 80% 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.
The good news is that Intertek Group's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is also very heartening. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Intertek Group's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Intertek Group's earnings per share history for free.
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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