Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. Importantly, COSCO SHIPPING Holdings Co., Ltd. (HKG:1919) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is COSCO SHIPPING Holdings's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at March 2019 COSCO SHIPPING Holdings had debt of CN¥112.7b, up from CN¥61.4b in one year. However, it does have CN¥44.9b in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CN¥67.8b.
A Look At COSCO SHIPPING Holdings's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that COSCO SHIPPING Holdings had liabilities of CN¥90.1b due within 12 months and liabilities of CN¥104.0b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CN¥44.9b in cash and CN¥12.0b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CN¥137.2b.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the CN¥49.4b 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 At the end of the day, COSCO SHIPPING Holdings would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
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). 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).
With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 7.6, it's fair to say COSCO SHIPPING Holdings does have a significant amount of debt. However, its interest coverage of 2.7 is reasonably strong, which is a good sign. Looking on the bright side, COSCO SHIPPING Holdings boosted its EBIT by a silky 75% 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. 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 COSCO SHIPPING Holdings 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, 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 two years, COSCO SHIPPING Holdings burned a lot of cash. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
To be frank both COSCO SHIPPING Holdings's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at growing its EBIT; that's encouraging. Overall, it seems to us that COSCO SHIPPING Holdings's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. 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 COSCO SHIPPING Holdings's earnings per share history for free.
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.
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