Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 China Communications Construction Company Limited (HKG:1800) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
See our latest analysis for China Communications Construction
What Is China Communications Construction's Net Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that China Communications Construction had CN¥438.6b in debt in March 2022; about the same as the year before. However, it also had CN¥129.4b in cash, and so its net debt is CN¥309.2b.SEHK:1800 Debt to Equity History August 2nd 2022
How Healthy Is China Communications Construction's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that China Communications Construction had liabilities of CN¥647.9b falling due within a year, and liabilities of CN¥427.0b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CN¥129.4b as well as receivables valued at CN¥301.7b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CN¥643.9b.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the CN¥108.9b 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 definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, China Communications Construction would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (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).
Strangely China Communications Construction has a sky high EBITDA ratio of 6.4, implying high debt, but a strong interest coverage of 11.2. So either it has access to very cheap long term debt or that interest expense is going to grow! Notably China Communications Construction's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if China Communications Construction 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, China Communications Construction burned a lot of cash. 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.
To be frank both China Communications Construction's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it's pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that's encouraging. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think China Communications Construction has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn't float our boat. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example China Communications Construction has 2 warning signs (and 1 which shouldn't be ignored) we think you should know about.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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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.