Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. As with many other companies The Wendy's Company (NASDAQ:WEN) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt Dangerous?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Wendy's's Debt?
As you can see below, Wendy's had US$2.30b of debt at June 2019, down from US$2.80b a year prior. However, it also had US$426.2m in cash, and so its net debt is US$1.87b.
How Healthy Is Wendy's's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Wendy's had liabilities of US$341.3m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$4.17b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$426.2m in cash and US$150.4m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.94b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of US$4.52b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Wendy's's net debt is 4.7 times its EBITDA, which is a significant but still reasonable amount of leverage. However, its interest coverage of 1k is very high, suggesting that the interest expense may well rise in the future, even if there hasn't yet been a major cost attached to that debt. We saw Wendy's grow its EBIT by 3.3% in the last twelve months. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off debt. 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 Wendy's'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 clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Wendy's produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 55% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Neither Wendy's's ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, nor its level of total liabilities gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But the good news is it seems to be able to cover its interest expense with its EBIT with ease. We think that Wendy's'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. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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