David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the permanent loss of capital. So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, Freightways Limited (NZSE:FRE) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Freightways's Debt?
As you can see below, Freightways had NZ$173.1m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has NZ$16.0m in cash leading to net debt of about NZ$157.1m.
How Strong Is Freightways's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Freightways had liabilities of NZ$92.9m falling due within a year, and liabilities of NZ$217.7m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had NZ$16.0m in cash and NZ$87.8m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling NZ$206.8m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded Freightways shares are worth a total of NZ$1.20b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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 sitting at just 1.4 times EBITDA, Freightways is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And it boasts interest cover of 9.9 times, which is more than adequate. The good news is that Freightways has increased its EBIT by 3.2% over twelve months, which should ease any concerns about debt repayment. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Freightways 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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Freightways produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 55% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Freightways's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And we also thought its net debt to EBITDA was a positive. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Freightways can handle its debt fairly comfortably. 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. Given Freightways has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.
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.
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