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 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 Deutsche Lufthansa AG (FRA:LHA) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Deutsche Lufthansa's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Deutsche Lufthansa had €6.77b in debt in March 2019; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has €3.32b in cash leading to net debt of about €3.45b.
A Look At Deutsche Lufthansa's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Deutsche Lufthansa had liabilities of €18.2b falling due within a year, and liabilities of €14.9b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €3.32b and €6.56b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling €23.1b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the €7.25b 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 definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, Deutsche Lufthansa would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
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.
Deutsche Lufthansa has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.75. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 15.7 times over. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. The modesty of its debt load may become crucial for Deutsche Lufthansa if management cannot prevent a repeat of the 27% cut to EBIT over the last year. When a company sees its earnings tank, it can sometimes find its relationships with its lenders turn sour. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Deutsche Lufthansa 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. In the last three years, Deutsche Lufthansa's free cash flow amounted to 29% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
On the face of it, Deutsche Lufthansa's EBIT growth rate 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 interest cover is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, it seems to us that Deutsche Lufthansa's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. Another positive for shareholders is that it pays dividends. So if you like receiving those dividend payments, check Deutsche Lufthansa's dividend history, without delay!
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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