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Is Safe Bulkers (NYSE:SB) A Risky Investment?

Simply Wall St

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. Importantly, Safe Bulkers, Inc. (NYSE:SB) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

See our latest analysis for Safe Bulkers

How Much Debt Does Safe Bulkers Carry?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Safe Bulkers had US$541.5m in debt in September 2019; about the same as the year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$76.3m, its net debt is less, at about US$465.2m.

NYSE:SB Historical Debt, November 13th 2019

How Strong Is Safe Bulkers's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Safe Bulkers had liabilities of US$76.7m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$507.9m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$76.3m in cash and US$12.2m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$496.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit casts a shadow over the US$170.2m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, Safe Bulkers would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.

In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.

While Safe Bulkers's debt to EBITDA ratio (4.6) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.8, suggesting high leverage. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Fortunately, Safe Bulkers grew its EBIT by 3.0% in the last year, slowly shrinking its debt relative to earnings. 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 Safe Bulkers 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, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. In the last three years, Safe Bulkers created free cash flow amounting to 15% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.

Our View

On the face of it, Safe Bulkers'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 at least its EBIT growth rate is not so bad. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Safe Bulkers has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. Over time, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, so if you're interested in Safe Bulkers, 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.

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.