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. We can see that Auto Trader Group plc (LON:AUTO) does use debt in its business. 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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Auto Trader Group's Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Auto Trader Group had UK£310.3m of debt in March 2019, down from UK£359.0m, one year before. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
A Look At Auto Trader Group's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Auto Trader Group had liabilities of UK£66.3m due within 12 months, and liabilities of UK£326.1m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had UK£5.90m in cash and UK£53.1m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling UK£333.4m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given Auto Trader Group has a market capitalization of UK£4.76b, it's hard to believe these liabilities pose much threat. But there are sufficient liabilities that we would certainly recommend shareholders continue to monitor the balance sheet, going forward.
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.
Auto Trader Group has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 1.2. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 23.8 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. The good news is that Auto Trader Group has increased its EBIT by 9.7% over twelve months, which should ease any concerns about debt repayment. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Auto Trader Group can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Auto Trader Group recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 86% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
The good news is that Auto Trader Group's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! Zooming out, Auto Trader Group seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. We'd be motivated to research the stock further if we found out that Auto Trader Group insiders have bought shares recently. If you would too, then you're in luck, since today we're sharing our list of reported insider transactions for free.
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
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