Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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. As with many other companies SpartanNash Company (NASDAQ:SPTN) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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 SpartanNash's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of April 2019 SpartanNash had US$771.1m of debt, an increase on US$741.0m, over one year. However, it does have US$21.4m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$749.8m.
How Strong Is SpartanNash's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that SpartanNash had liabilities of US$555.1m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.11b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$21.4m as well as receivables valued at US$376.7m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$1.27b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$437.2m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt After all, SpartanNash would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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.
SpartanNash's debt is 4.1 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 2.8 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Worse, SpartanNash's EBIT was down 26% over the last year. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if SpartanNash 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, SpartanNash's free cash flow amounted to 46% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
To be frank both SpartanNash's EBIT growth rate and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. Having said that, its ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow isn't such a worry. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think SpartanNash has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. Given our concerns about SpartanNash's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.
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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