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.' 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, Macfarlane Group PLC (LON:MACF) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Macfarlane Group Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at December 2018 Macfarlane Group had debt of UK£17.7m, up from UK£16.7m in one year. On the flip side, it has UK£4.61m in cash leading to net debt of about UK£13.1m.
How Strong Is Macfarlane Group's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Macfarlane Group had liabilities of UK£66.8m due within a year, and liabilities of UK£12.8m falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£4.61m and UK£49.2m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total UK£25.8m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Of course, Macfarlane Group has a market capitalization of UK£144.0m, so these liabilities are probably manageable. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.
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).
Macfarlane Group has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.84. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 21.5 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Another good sign is that Macfarlane Group has been able to increase its EBIT by 21% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down debt. 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 Macfarlane 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 we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Macfarlane Group recorded free cash flow worth 58% 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.
Macfarlane Group's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its EBIT growth rate is also very heartening. Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Macfarlane Group takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. That means they are taking on a bit more risk, in the hope of boosting shareholder returns. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of Macfarlane Group's earnings per share history 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.