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. So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. Importantly, CITIC Telecom International Holdings Limited (HKG:1883) does carry debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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 common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. 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. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does CITIC Telecom International Holdings Carry?
As you can see below, CITIC Telecom International Holdings had HK$6.58b of debt at June 2019, down from HK$7.47b a year prior. On the flip side, it has HK$1.15b in cash leading to net debt of about HK$5.43b.
How Healthy Is CITIC Telecom International Holdings's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, CITIC Telecom International Holdings had liabilities of HK$2.36b due within 12 months, and liabilities of HK$7.01b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of HK$1.15b and HK$1.92b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total HK$6.30b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of HK$10.4b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
CITIC Telecom International Holdings has net debt worth 2.4 times EBITDA, which isn't too much, but its interest cover looks a bit on the low side, with EBIT at only 4.6 times the interest expense. While these numbers do not alarm us, it's worth noting that the cost of the company's debt is having a real impact. If CITIC Telecom International Holdings can keep growing EBIT at last year's rate of 13% over the last year, then it will find its debt load easier to manage. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine CITIC Telecom International Holdings's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, CITIC Telecom International Holdings generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 98% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for CITIC Telecom International Holdings was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For example, its level of total liabilities makes us a little nervous about its debt. Considering this range of data points, we think CITIC Telecom International Holdings 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. Of course, we wouldn't say no to the extra confidence that we'd gain if we knew that CITIC Telecom International Holdings insiders have been buying shares: if you're on the same wavelength, you can find out if insiders are buying 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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