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Is Summit Materials (NYSE:SUM) Using Too Much Debt?

Simply Wall St

Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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 Summit Materials, Inc. (NYSE:SUM) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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, 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.

View our latest analysis for Summit Materials

What Is Summit Materials's Net Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Summit Materials had US$1.86b in debt in June 2019; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$67.7m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.79b.

NYSE:SUM Historical Debt, September 10th 2019

How Healthy Is Summit Materials's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Summit Materials had liabilities of US$304.8m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$2.33b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$67.7m as well as receivables valued at US$340.0m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$2.22b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$2.47b. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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 we wouldn't worry about Summit Materials's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.7, we think its super-low interest cover of 1.4 times is a sign of high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Worse, Summit Materials's EBIT was down 20% over the last year. If earnings keep going like that over the long term, it has a snowball's chance in hell of paying off that debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Summit Materials's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Summit Materials recorded free cash flow of 37% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

To be frank both Summit Materials's interest cover and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is not so bad. Overall, it seems to us that Summit Materials's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Given our concerns about Summit Materials's debt levels, it seems only prudent to check if insiders have been ditching the stock.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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.