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.' 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. As with many other companies Nelco Limited (NSE:NELCO) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth 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 Nelco's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of March 2019 Nelco had ₹801.6m of debt, an increase on ₹500.2m, over one year. On the flip side, it has ₹59.8m in cash leading to net debt of about ₹741.8m.
How Strong Is Nelco's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Nelco had liabilities of ₹1.42b due within 12 months and liabilities of ₹390.4m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of ₹59.8m as well as receivables valued at ₹720.2m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total ₹1.04b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn't so bad because Nelco is worth ₹4.89b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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.
Nelco has net debt worth 2.0 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 4.0 times the interest expense. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Importantly, Nelco grew its EBIT by 33% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Nelco can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, Nelco saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
Based on what we've seen Nelco is not finding it easy conversion of EBIT to free cash flow, but the other factors we considered give us cause to be optimistic. In particular, we are dazzled with its EBIT growth rate. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Nelco's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. Over time, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, so if you're interested in Nelco, you may well want to click here to check an interactive graph of its earnings per share history.
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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