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. We note that China New Higher Education Group Limited (HKG:2001) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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 think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
See our latest analysis for China New Higher Education Group
How Much Debt Does China New Higher Education Group Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at February 2022 China New Higher Education Group had debt of CN¥2.62b, up from CN¥1.88b in one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of CN¥689.1m, its net debt is less, at about CN¥1.93b.SEHK:2001 Debt to Equity History April 29th 2022
How Healthy Is China New Higher Education Group's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, China New Higher Education Group had liabilities of CN¥2.63b due within 12 months, and liabilities of CN¥2.39b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had CN¥689.1m in cash and CN¥74.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CN¥4.26b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of CN¥3.68b, we think shareholders really should watch China New Higher Education Group's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
China New Higher Education Group's debt is 2.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 5.5 times over. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Importantly, China New Higher Education Group grew its EBIT by 33% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its 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 China New Higher Education Group 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, 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. During the last three years, China New Higher Education Group produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 61% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for China New Higher Education Group was the fact that it seems able to grow its EBIT confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. In particular, level of total liabilities gives us cold feet. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about China New Higher Education Group's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. To that end, you should be aware of the 3 warning signs we've spotted with China New Higher Education Group .
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.
This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.