Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. As with many other companies ALS Limited (ASX:ALQ) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is ALS's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of March 2019 ALS had AU$780.2m of debt, an increase on AU$697.5m, over one year. On the flip side, it has AU$148.3m in cash leading to net debt of about AU$631.9m.
A Look At ALS's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, ALS had liabilities of AU$541.4m due within 12 months, and liabilities of AU$534.1m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$148.3m as well as receivables valued at AU$305.7m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling AU$621.5m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded ALS shares are worth a total of AU$3.57b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With a debt to EBITDA ratio of 1.8, ALS uses debt artfully but responsibly. And the alluring interest cover (EBIT of 9.2 times interest expense) certainly does not do anything to dispel this impression. Also relevant is that ALS has grown its EBIT by a very respectable 27% in the last year, thus enhancing its ability to pay down debt. 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 ALS can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, ALS recorded free cash flow worth 50% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Happily, ALS's impressive EBIT growth rate implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its interest cover also supports that impression! Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that ALS takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that ALS insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
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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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.