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. 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 Grifols, S.A. (BME:GRF) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Grifols's Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of September 2019, Grifols had €6.64b of debt, up from €6.36b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had €794.9m in cash, and so its net debt is €5.84b.
How Strong Is Grifols's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Grifols had liabilities of €1.39b falling due within a year, and liabilities of €7.35b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €794.9m and €464.3m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling €7.49b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit isn't so bad because Grifols is worth a massive €17.7b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). 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).
Grifols has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.4 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.4 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Given the debt load, it's hardly ideal that Grifols's EBIT was pretty flat over the last twelve months. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Grifols 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Grifols recorded free cash flow of 35% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Both Grifols's net debt to EBITDA and its interest cover were discouraging. But its not so bad at (not) growing its EBIT. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Grifols is taking some risks with its use of debt. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. In light of our reservations about the company's balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
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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