The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, SSP Group plc (LON:SSPG) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is SSP Group's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of March 2019, SSP Group had UK£602.0m of debt, up from UK£446.8m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had UK£166.1m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£435.9m.
A Look At SSP Group's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that SSP Group had liabilities of UK£600.2m due within 12 months and liabilities of UK£566.8m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£166.1m as well as receivables valued at UK£186.3m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£814.6m.
SSP Group has a market capitalization of UK£2.82b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
SSP Group has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.5. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 19.5 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. And we also note warmly that SSP Group grew its EBIT by 16% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. 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 SSP Group 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, SSP Group 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.
Happily, SSP Group's impressive interest cover implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its EBIT growth rate also supports that impression! Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that SSP Group takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that SSP Group 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.
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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