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, SMT Scharf AG (ETR:S4A) does carry 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. 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. 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. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is SMT Scharf's Debt?
As you can see below, SMT Scharf had €16.5m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has €7.51m in cash leading to net debt of about €8.95m.
How Healthy Is SMT Scharf's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that SMT Scharf had liabilities of €25.5m due within 12 months and liabilities of €12.2m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €7.51m and €25.6m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling €4.54m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Of course, SMT Scharf has a market capitalization of €54.8m, so these liabilities are probably manageable. However, we do think it is worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet strength, as it may change over time.
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.
SMT Scharf has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.94. And its EBIT easily covers its interest expense, being 15.4 times the size. So you could argue it is no more threatened by its debt than an elephant is by a mouse. Also good is that SMT Scharf grew its EBIT at 13% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if SMT Scharf 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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, SMT Scharf saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
SMT Scharf's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered were considerably better There's no doubt that its ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT is pretty flash. Considering this range of data points, we think SMT Scharf is in a good position to manage its debt levels. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of SMT Scharf's earnings per share history 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.
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 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.