Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. 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 Comtech Telecommunications Corp. (NASDAQ:CMTL) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Comtech Telecommunications's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Comtech Telecommunications had US$164.6m in debt in July 2019; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has US$45.6m in cash leading to net debt of about US$119.0m.
How Strong Is Comtech Telecommunications's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Comtech Telecommunications had liabilities of US$145.3m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$207.3m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$45.6m and US$145.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$162.0m.
This deficit isn't so bad because Comtech Telecommunications is worth US$785.1m, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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). 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).
Comtech Telecommunications has net debt worth 1.6 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 3.6 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. We note that Comtech Telecommunications grew its EBIT by 30% in the last year, and that should make it easier to pay down debt, going forward. 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 Comtech Telecommunications'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 clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Comtech Telecommunications actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Happily, Comtech Telecommunications's impressive conversion of EBIT to free cash flow implies it has the upper hand on its debt. But truth be told we feel its interest cover does undermine this impression a bit. Zooming out, Comtech Telecommunications seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Comtech Telecommunications 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.
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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