The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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 Xcel Brands, Inc. (NASDAQ:XELB) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is Xcel Brands's Debt?
As you can see below, Xcel Brands had US$21.7m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$6.27m in cash, and so its net debt is US$15.4m.
How Strong Is Xcel Brands's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Xcel Brands had liabilities of US$10.0m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$37.3m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$6.27m in cash and US$8.87m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$32.2m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's US$30.4m 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.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Xcel Brands has net debt worth 2.5 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 3.1 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. The bad news is that Xcel Brands saw its EBIT decline by 19% over the last year. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Xcel Brands's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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 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. Over the most recent three years, Xcel Brands recorded free cash flow worth 74% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Mulling over Xcel Brands's attempt at (not) growing its EBIT, we're certainly not enthusiastic. 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 bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Xcel Brands's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the 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.
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