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.' 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 Experian plc (LON:EXPN) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Experian's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Experian had US$3.46b of debt in March 2019, down from US$3.63b, one year before. However, it does have US$151.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$3.31b.
How Strong Is Experian's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Experian had liabilities of US$2.84b due within a year, and liabilities of US$2.75b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$151.0m and US$1.08b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$4.36b.
Of course, Experian has a titanic market capitalization of US$27.7b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.
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.
We'd say that Experian's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 2.2), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its commanding EBIT of 10.4 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Experian grew its EBIT by 6.3% in the last year. Whilst that hardly knocks our socks off it is a positive when it comes to debt. 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 Experian 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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Experian produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 74% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Happily, Experian's impressive conversion of EBIT to free cash flow implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And the good news does not stop there, as its interest cover also supports that impression! Taking all this data into account, it seems to us that Experian takes a pretty sensible approach to debt. While that brings some risk, it can also enhance returns for shareholders. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that Experian insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying by clicking this link.
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.
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