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.' 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. Importantly, Central Garden & Pet Company (NASDAQ:CENT) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.
What Is Central Garden & Pet's Debt?
As you can see below, Central Garden & Pet had US$693.1m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it does have US$445.8m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$247.3m.
How Healthy Is Central Garden & Pet's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Central Garden & Pet had liabilities of US$278.8m due within a year, and liabilities of US$751.8m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$445.8m and US$395.6m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$189.3m.
Of course, Central Garden & Pet has a market capitalization of US$1.26b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. 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). 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).
Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 1.2 and interest cover of 4.8 times, it seems to us that Central Garden & Pet is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Unfortunately, Central Garden & Pet saw its EBIT slide 2.3% in the last twelve months. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Central Garden & Pet'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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Central Garden & Pet recorded free cash flow worth 56% 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.
Central Garden & Pet's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was a real positive on this analysis, as was its net debt to EBITDA. Having said that, its EBIT growth rate somewhat sensitizes us to potential future risks to the balance sheet. When we consider all the elements mentioned above, it seems to us that Central Garden & Pet is managing its debt quite well. Having said that, the load is sufficiently heavy that we would recommend any shareholders keep a close eye on it. Over time, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, so if you're interested in Central Garden & Pet, you may well want to click here to check an interactive graph of its earnings per share history.
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
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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.