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.' 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, Hang Lung Group Limited (HKG:10) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. 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.
Check out our latest analysis for Hang Lung Group
How Much Debt Does Hang Lung Group Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2023 Hang Lung Group had debt of HK$47.5b, up from HK$44.9b in one year. However, it also had HK$5.75b in cash, and so its net debt is HK$41.7b.
How Healthy Is Hang Lung Group's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Hang Lung Group had liabilities of HK$14.3b due within a year, and liabilities of HK$58.1b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had HK$5.75b in cash and HK$3.48b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total HK$63.1b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit casts a shadow over the HK$14.7b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we'd watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, Hang Lung Group 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
As it happens Hang Lung Group has a fairly concerning net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.7 but very strong interest coverage of 17.6. This means that unless the company has access to very cheap debt, that interest expense will likely grow in the future. Sadly, Hang Lung Group's EBIT actually dropped 2.6% in the last year. If earnings continue on that decline then managing that debt will be difficult like delivering hot soup on a unicycle. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is Hang Lung Group'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, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Hang Lung Group produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 56% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
On the face of it, Hang Lung Group's net debt to EBITDA left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it's pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that's encouraging. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Hang Lung Group's use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 1 warning sign we've spotted with Hang Lung Group .
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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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.