Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. As with many other companies Grainger plc (LON:GRI) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Grainger's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of March 2019, Grainger had UK£1.22b of debt, up from UK£998.3m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had UK£141.9m in cash, and so its net debt is UK£1.08b.
How Healthy Is Grainger's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Grainger had liabilities of UK£90.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of UK£1.24b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had UK£141.9m in cash and UK£75.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total UK£1.11b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of UK£1.38b. This suggests shareholders would heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 10.8, it's fair to say Grainger does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 5.4 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. We saw Grainger grow its EBIT by 5.7% in the last twelve months. That's far from incredible but it is a good thing, when it comes to paying off 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 Grainger'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the last three years, Grainger actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. There's nothing better than incoming cash when it comes to staying in your lenders' good graces.
Neither Grainger'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 convert EBIT to free cash flow with ease. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Grainger is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. Not all risk is bad, as it can boost share price returns if it pays off, but this debt risk is worth keeping in mind. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Grainger insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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