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. As with many other companies Opus Group AB (publ) (STO:OPUS) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Opus Group's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Opus Group had debt of kr2.09b, up from kr1.97b in one year. However, it does have kr442.6m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about kr1.65b.
How Healthy Is Opus Group's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Opus Group had liabilities of kr646.7m due within 12 months and liabilities of kr2.62b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of kr442.6m as well as receivables valued at kr267.1m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by kr2.55b.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the kr1.48b company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet." So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt After all, Opus Group would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
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.
While Opus Group's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.2) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 2.4, suggesting high leverage. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Looking on the bright side, Opus Group boosted its EBIT by a silky 46% in the last year. Like a mother's loving embrace of a newborn that sort of growth builds resilience, putting the company in a stronger position to manage its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Opus Group's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Opus Group's free cash flow amounted to 30% of its EBIT, less than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
Mulling over Opus Group's attempt at staying on top of its total liabilities, we're certainly not enthusiastic. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, we think it's fair to say that Opus Group has enough debt that there are some real risks around the balance sheet. If everything goes well that may pay off but the downside of this debt is a greater risk of permanent losses. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Opus Group insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold 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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If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.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.