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. Importantly, Biffa plc (LON:BIFF) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Biffa's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Biffa had UK£296.6m of debt at March 2019, down from UK£359.7m a year prior. On the flip side, it has UK£81.9m in cash leading to net debt of about UK£214.7m.
How Healthy Is Biffa's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Biffa had liabilities of UK£298.0m due within a year, and liabilities of UK£491.5m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£81.9m and UK£183.4m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total UK£524.2m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of UK£496.5m, we think shareholders really should watch Biffa's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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). 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).
Even though Biffa's debt is only 1.6, its interest cover is really very low at 1.9. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. While companies often boast that these charges are non-cash, most such businesses will therefore require ongoing investment (that is not expensed.) Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Importantly, Biffa's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 26% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. 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 Biffa'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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Biffa 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.
To be frank both Biffa's interest cover and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Overall, we think it's fair to say that Biffa has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Biffa insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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