Is Helen of Troy (NASDAQ:HELE) A Risky Investment?

Simply Wall St

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. 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. Importantly, Helen of Troy Limited (NASDAQ:HELE) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Helen of Troy

What Is Helen of Troy's Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of May 2019, Helen of Troy had US$325.2m of debt, up from US$300.1m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$18.4m in cash, and so its net debt is US$306.8m.

NasdaqGS:HELE Historical Debt, September 20th 2019

How Strong Is Helen of Troy's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Helen of Troy had liabilities of US$289.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$377.6m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of US$18.4m and US$262.5m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$385.8m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Since publicly traded Helen of Troy shares are worth a total of US$3.89b, it seems unlikely that this level of liabilities would be a major 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). 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).

Helen of Troy's net debt is only 1.3 times its EBITDA. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 16.4 times the size. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Helen of Troy's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year, but that shouldn't be an issue given the it doesn't have a lot of debt. 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 Helen of Troy can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, Helen of Troy recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 97% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.

Our View

The good news is that Helen of Troy's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is also very heartening. Zooming out, Helen of Troy 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 Helen of Troy 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.

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.