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Is Lagardère (EPA:MMB) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

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.' 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 Lagardère SCA (EPA:MMB) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Lagardère

What Is Lagardère's Net Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, Lagardère had €2.64b of debt, up from €2.10b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had €1.04b in cash, and so its net debt is €1.60b.

ENXTPA:MMB Historical Debt, August 5th 2019

How Strong Is Lagardère's Balance Sheet?

The latest balance sheet data shows that Lagardère had liabilities of €4.75b due within a year, and liabilities of €4.34b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €1.04b as well as receivables valued at €1.27b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling €6.78b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

The deficiency here weighs heavily on the €2.60b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt At the end of the day, Lagardère would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.

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).

Lagardère's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.4 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 6.4 times last year. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Sadly, Lagardère's EBIT actually dropped 7.0% in the last year. If that earnings trend continues then its debt load will grow heavy like the heart of a polar bear watching its sole cub. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Lagardère'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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Lagardère generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 86% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.

Our View

Mulling over Lagardère's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Lagardère stock a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. Given Lagardère has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.

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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. 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.