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SAF-Holland (ETR:SFQ) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

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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.' 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. We note that SAF-Holland S.A. (ETR:SFQ) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.

View our latest analysis for SAF-Holland

How Much Debt Does SAF-Holland Carry?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that SAF-Holland had €367.1m in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it does have €121.3m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about €245.8m.

XTRA:SFQ Historical Debt, August 28th 2019
XTRA:SFQ Historical Debt, August 28th 2019

How Strong Is SAF-Holland's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that SAF-Holland had liabilities of €207.0m falling due within a year, and liabilities of €496.9m due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €121.3m as well as receivables valued at €174.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total €408.5m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of €370.4m, we think shareholders really should watch SAF-Holland's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

SAF-Holland's net debt of 2.1 times EBITDA suggests graceful use of debt. And the fact that its trailing twelve months of EBIT was 8.8 times its interest expenses harmonizes with that theme. SAF-Holland grew its EBIT by 3.2% in the last year. Whilst that hardly knocks our socks off it is a positive when it comes to 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 SAF-Holland's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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. In the last three years, SAF-Holland's free cash flow amounted to 34% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

Mulling over SAF-Holland's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But on the bright side, its interest cover is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that SAF-Holland'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. Given SAF-Holland 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.