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Vodafone Group (LON:VOD) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of 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 Vodafone Group Plc (LON:VOD) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Vodafone Group

What Is Vodafone Group's Net Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of March 2019, Vodafone Group had €57.2b of debt, up from €45.6b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had €25.5b in cash, and so its net debt is €31.8b.

LSE:VOD Historical Debt, August 5th 2019

A Look At Vodafone Group's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Vodafone Group had liabilities of €25.5b due within 12 months and liabilities of €53.9b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had €25.5b in cash and €9.90b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by €44.1b.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's huge €43.9b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet, just like one might study a new partner's social media. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

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). 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).

Vodafone Group's debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.8 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. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Vodafone Group saw its EBIT drop by 14% over the last twelve months. If that's the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. 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 Vodafone Group'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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Happily for any shareholders, Vodafone Group actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash conversion gets us as excited as the crowd when the beat drops at a Daft Punk concert.

Our View

On the face of it, Vodafone Group's level of total liabilities left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Vodafone Group stock a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.

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.