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Is Element Solutions (NYSE:ESI) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. As with many other companies Element Solutions Inc (NYSE:ESI) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Element Solutions

What Is Element Solutions's Debt?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Element Solutions had debt of US$1.60b at the end of June 2019, a reduction from US$5.54b over a year. However, it also had US$247.6m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.35b.

NYSE:ESI Historical Debt, August 13th 2019

A Look At Element Solutions's Liabilities

The latest balance sheet data shows that Element Solutions had liabilities of US$338.0m due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.87b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$247.6m as well as receivables valued at US$374.7m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.59b.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$2.40b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Element Solutions's use of debt. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). 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).

While we wouldn't worry about Element Solutions's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.5, we think its super-low interest cover of 1.1 times is a sign of high leverage. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Another concern for investors might be that Element Solutions's EBIT fell 11% in the last year. If that's the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Element Solutions'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Element Solutions recorded free cash flow of 24% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.

Our View

Mulling over Element Solutions's attempt at covering its interest expense with its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. And even its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow fails to inspire much confidence. We're quite clear that we consider Element Solutions to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. 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. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Element Solutions insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.