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.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We note that Southern Copper Corporation (NYSE:SCCO) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Southern Copper's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Southern Copper had US$5.96b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$871.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$5.09b.
How Strong Is Southern Copper's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Southern Copper had liabilities of US$1.39b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$7.17b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$871.0m in cash and US$935.7m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$6.75b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Southern Copper has a very large market capitalization of US$22.8b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate 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 measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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 sitting at just 1.5 times EBITDA, Southern Copper is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And this view is supported by the solid interest coverage, with EBIT coming in at 9.7 times the interest expense over the last year. Unfortunately, Southern Copper's EBIT flopped 12% 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. 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 Southern Copper'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Southern Copper recorded free cash flow of 33% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
Southern Copper's EBIT growth rate and conversion of EBIT to free cash flow definitely weigh on it, in our esteem. But the good news is it seems to be able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT with ease. We think that Southern Copper's debt does make it a bit risky, after considering the aforementioned data points together. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. Given Southern Copper 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.
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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