The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Micro Focus International plc (LON:MCRO) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Micro Focus International's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Micro Focus International had US$4.65b of debt at April 2019, down from US$4.91b a year prior. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$2.67b, its net debt is less, at about US$1.98b.
How Healthy Is Micro Focus International's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Micro Focus International had liabilities of US$3.93b due within a year, and liabilities of US$6.23b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$2.67b as well as receivables valued at US$864.5m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$6.63b.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$4.56b, we think shareholders really should watch Micro Focus International's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Micro Focus International has net debt worth 1.9 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 2.6 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Notably Micro Focus International's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Micro Focus International'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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, Micro Focus International recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 94% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
On the face of it, Micro Focus International's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Micro Focus International's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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