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. Importantly, Keller Group plc (LON:KLR) does carry debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Keller Group's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Keller Group had UK£398.8m of debt at June 2019, down from UK£416.3m a year prior. However, it does have UK£68.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about UK£330.8m.
A Look At Keller Group's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Keller Group had liabilities of UK£543.2m due within 12 months, and liabilities of UK£549.9m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of UK£68.0m as well as receivables valued at UK£688.9m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by UK£336.2m.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of UK£373.3m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Keller Group's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Keller Group's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.0 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 4.9 times last year. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. Shareholders should be aware that Keller Group's EBIT was down 21% last year. If that earnings trend continues then paying off its debt will be about as easy as herding cats on to a roller coaster. 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 Keller Group'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 it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, Keller Group's free cash flow amounted to 26% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
We'd go so far as to say Keller Group's EBIT growth rate was disappointing. Having said that, its ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, isn't such a worry. Overall, it seems to us that Keller Group's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
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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