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Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about. 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 Sensient Technologies Corporation (NYSE:SXT) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own 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 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Sensient Technologies's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Sensient Technologies had US$637.2m of debt in September 2019, down from US$766.1m, one year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$34.4m, its net debt is less, at about US$602.8m.
How Healthy Is Sensient Technologies's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Sensient Technologies had liabilities of US$192.2m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$689.7m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$34.4m in cash and US$244.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$602.9m.
This deficit isn't so bad because Sensient Technologies is worth US$2.64b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
With net debt to EBITDA of 2.5 Sensient Technologies has a fairly noticeable amount of debt. On the plus side, its EBIT was 8.7 times its interest expense, and its net debt to EBITDA, was quite high, at 2.5. Unfortunately, Sensient Technologies's EBIT flopped 13% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Sensient Technologies can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Sensient Technologies recorded free cash flow of 27% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Sensient Technologies's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example, its interest cover is relatively strong. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Sensient Technologies is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn't really want to see it increase from here. Over time, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, so if you're interested in Sensient Technologies, you may well want to click here to check an interactive graph of its earnings per share history.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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