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These 4 Measures Indicate That Seaspan (NYSE:SSW) Is Using Debt Extensively

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. 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. As with many other companies Seaspan Corporation (NYSE:SSW) makes use of debt. 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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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.

Check out our latest analysis for Seaspan

What Is Seaspan's Net Debt?

As you can see below, Seaspan had US$3.18b of debt at June 2019, down from US$4.51b a year prior. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$592.5m, its net debt is less, at about US$2.59b.

NYSE:SSW Historical Debt, September 23rd 2019

A Look At Seaspan's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Seaspan had liabilities of US$794.4m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$4.51b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$592.5m as well as receivables valued at US$54.2m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$4.66b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$2.44b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet." So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt After all, Seaspan would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

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.

While Seaspan's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.5) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.7, suggesting high leverage. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Looking on the bright side, Seaspan boosted its EBIT by a silky 43% in the last year. Like a mother's loving embrace of a newborn that sort of growth builds resilience, putting the company in a stronger position to manage its debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Seaspan'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. During the last three years, Seaspan produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 57% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

On the face of it, Seaspan's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Seaspan stock 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. Given Seaspan 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.

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.