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.' 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 Steel Dynamics, Inc. (NASDAQ:STLD) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Steel Dynamics Carry?
As you can see below, Steel Dynamics had US$2.43b of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$1.09b in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.34b.
How Healthy Is Steel Dynamics's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Steel Dynamics had liabilities of US$925.7m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$2.88b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$1.09b in cash and US$1.07b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.65b.
This deficit isn't so bad because Steel Dynamics is worth US$6.03b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Steel Dynamics has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.75. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 14.4 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. And we also note warmly that Steel Dynamics grew its EBIT by 14% last year, making its debt load easier to handle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Steel Dynamics'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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Steel Dynamics recorded free cash flow worth 63% 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 Steel Dynamics'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. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Steel Dynamics takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Steel Dynamics insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying 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.
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