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 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. We can see that Carriage Services, Inc. (NYSE:CSV) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can’t easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. 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 Carriage Services Carry?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at September 2021 Carriage Services had debt of US$487.3m, up from US$459.2m in one year. And it doesn’t have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is Carriage Services’ Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Carriage Services had liabilities of US$60.7m due within a year, and liabilities of US$910.8m falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$1.09m as well as receivables valued at US$26.2m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$944.2m.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s market capitalization of US$895.2m, we think shareholders really should watch Carriage Services’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Carriage Services’s debt is 4.2 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 3.4 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. The good news is that Carriage Services grew its EBIT a smooth 37% over the last twelve months. Like the milk of human kindness that sort of growth increases resilience, making the company more capable of managing 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 Carriage Services 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.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Carriage Services recorded free cash flow worth 73% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
Carriage Services’s EBIT growth rate was a real positive on this analysis, as was its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow. Having said that, its level of total liabilities somewhat sensitizes us to potential future risks to the balance sheet. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Carriage Services’s use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we’d suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start.