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 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. As with many other companies Harmonic Inc. (NASDAQ:HLIT) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Harmonic Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of September 2019 Harmonic had US$147.5m of debt, an increase on US$134.1m, over one year. However, it also had US$66.7m in cash, and so its net debt is US$80.8m.
How Strong Is Harmonic's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Harmonic had liabilities of US$146.5m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$180.7m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$66.7m in cash and US$114.9m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$145.6m.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Harmonic has a market capitalization of US$711.0m, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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).
While Harmonic has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 2.3, its interest cover seems weak, at 1.4. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. These charges may be non-cash, so they could be excluded when it comes to paying down debt. But the accounting charges are there for a reason -- some assets are seen to be losing value. Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. We also note that Harmonic improved its EBIT from a last year's loss to a positive US$16m. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Harmonic'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 it's worth checking how much of the earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) is backed by free cash flow. Over the last year, Harmonic reported free cash flow worth 2.8% of its EBIT, which is really quite low. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
Harmonic's interest cover was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example, its level of total liabilities is relatively strong. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Harmonic is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. While Harmonic didn't make a statutory profit in the last year, its positive EBIT suggests that profitability might not be far away.Click here to see if its earnings are heading in the right direction, over the medium term.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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