Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. Importantly, Livestock Improvement Corporation Limited (NZSE:LIC) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can't easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
How Much Debt Does Livestock Improvement Carry?
As you can see below, Livestock Improvement had NZ$4.66m of debt at May 2019, down from NZ$25.9m a year prior. However, it also had NZ$4.53m in cash, and so its net debt is NZ$132.0k.
How Healthy Is Livestock Improvement's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Livestock Improvement had liabilities of NZ$39.8m due within 12 months and liabilities of NZ$49.5m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had NZ$4.53m in cash and NZ$63.9m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling NZ$20.8m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Since publicly traded Livestock Improvement shares are worth a total of NZ$121.0m, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major threat. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse. But either way, Livestock Improvement has virtually no net debt, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Livestock Improvement has very little debt (net of cash), and boasts a debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.0038 and EBIT of 81.1 times the interest expense. So relative to past earnings, the debt load seems trivial. While Livestock Improvement doesn't seem to have gained much on the EBIT line, at least earnings remain stable for now. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But you can't view debt in total isolation; since Livestock Improvement will need earnings to service that debt. So when considering debt, it's definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Livestock Improvement generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 100% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
Livestock Improvement's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is also very heartening. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Livestock Improvement's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. Given Livestock Improvement has a strong balance sheet is profitable and pays a dividend, it would be good to know how fast its dividends are growing, if at all. You can find out instantly by clicking this link.
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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