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.' 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. We can see that Partner Communications Company Ltd. (NASDAQ:PTNR) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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.
What Is Partner Communications's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Partner Communications had ₪1.58b of debt, at March 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of ₪598.0m, its net debt is less, at about ₪977.0m.
How Strong Is Partner Communications's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Partner Communications had liabilities of ₪1.30b due within 12 months, and liabilities of ₪2.12b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had ₪598.0m in cash and ₪691.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling ₪2.13b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of ₪2.25b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Partner Communications's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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.
Even though Partner Communications's debt is only 1.8, its interest cover is really very low at 2.3. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. While companies often boast that these charges are non-cash, most such businesses will therefore require ongoing investment (that is not expensed.) Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Importantly, Partner Communications's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 51% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since Partner Communications will need earnings to service that debt. So when considering debt, it's definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Partner Communications actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.
Mulling over Partner Communications's attempt at (not) growing its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Partner Communications's debt is making it a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. 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 Partner Communications's earnings per share history for free.
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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