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.' 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 FirstService Corporation (TSE:FSV) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is FirstService's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, FirstService had US$915.2m of debt, up from US$312.3m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$89.8m in cash, and so its net debt is US$825.3m.
A Look At FirstService's Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that FirstService had liabilities of US$376.1m due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.14b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had US$89.8m in cash and US$398.4m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$1.03b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because FirstService is worth US$4.03b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With net debt to EBITDA of 4.2 FirstService has a fairly noticeable amount of debt. But the high interest coverage of 9.4 suggests it can easily service that debt. If FirstService can keep growing EBIT at last year's rate of 14% over the last year, then it will find its debt load easier to manage. 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 FirstService'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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, FirstService produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 59% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
The good news is that FirstService's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But we must concede we find its net debt to EBITDA has the opposite effect. All these things considered, it appears that FirstService can comfortably handle its current debt levels. On the plus side, this leverage can boost shareholder returns, but the potential downside is more risk of loss, so it's worth monitoring the balance sheet. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that FirstService insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
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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