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.' 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. We can see that Surgery Partners, Inc. (NASDAQ:SGRY) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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 frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Surgery Partners Carry?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Surgery Partners had US$2.31b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$117.4m, its net debt is less, at about US$2.19b.
How Healthy Is Surgery Partners's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Surgery Partners had liabilities of US$368.8m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.78b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$117.4m and US$311.9m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total US$2.72b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit casts a shadow over the US$318.6m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, Surgery Partners would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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).
Surgery Partners shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (6.4), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 1.6 times the interest expense. The debt burden here is substantial. The good news is that Surgery Partners grew its EBIT a smooth 36% over the last twelve months. Like the milk of human kindness that sort of growth increases resilience, making the company more capable of managing debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Surgery Partners'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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, Surgery Partners's free cash flow amounted to 37% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
To be frank both Surgery Partners's net debt to EBITDA 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. It's also worth noting that Surgery Partners is in the Healthcare industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Overall, we think it's fair to say that Surgery Partners 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. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares 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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