The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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, Liaoning Port Co., Ltd. (HKG:2880) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. 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. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
Check out our latest analysis for Liaoning Port
How Much Debt Does Liaoning Port Carry?
As you can see below, Liaoning Port had CN¥4.91b of debt at March 2022, down from CN¥7.51b a year prior. On the flip side, it has CN¥4.75b in cash leading to net debt of about CN¥164.6m.SEHK:2880 Debt to Equity History May 2nd 2022
A Look At Liaoning Port's Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Liaoning Port had liabilities of CN¥7.54b falling due within a year, and liabilities of CN¥10.00b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CN¥4.75b in cash and CN¥4.01b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total CN¥8.78b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit isn't so bad because Liaoning Port is worth CN¥34.4b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution. But either way, Liaoning Port has virtually no net debt, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With debt at a measly 0.035 times EBITDA and EBIT covering interest a whopping 16.4 times, it's clear that Liaoning Port is not a desperate borrower. So relative to past earnings, the debt load seems trivial. In addition to that, we're happy to report that Liaoning Port has boosted its EBIT by 81%, thus reducing the spectre of future debt repayments. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is Liaoning Port's earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So when considering debt, it's definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Liaoning Port produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 54% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Liaoning Port's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its EBIT growth rate is also very heartening. It's also worth noting that Liaoning Port is in the Infrastructure industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Liaoning Port's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity . The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. We've identified 2 warning signs with Liaoning Port , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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