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. We note that Conduent Incorporated (NASDAQ:CNDT) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt Dangerous?
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. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Conduent’s Debt?
As you can see below, Conduent had US$1.41b of debt at December 2021, down from US$1.49b a year prior. However, it also had US$415.0m in cash, and so its net debt is US$998.0m.
A Look At Conduent’s Liabilities
The latest balance sheet data shows that Conduent had liabilities of US$1.03b due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.74b falling due after that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$415.0m and US$853.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$1.49b.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s market capitalization of US$1.03b, we think shareholders really should watch Conduent’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.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
While Conduent has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 2.2, its interest cover seems weak, at 1.7. In large part that’s it has so much depreciation and amortisation. While companies often boast that these charges are non-cash, most such businesses will therefore require ongoing investment (that is not expensed.) Either way there’s no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Notably, Conduent’s EBIT launched higher than Elon Musk, gaining a whopping 317% on last year. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Conduent’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. In the last three years, Conduent’s free cash flow amounted to 23% of its EBIT, less than we’d expect. That’s not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
On the face of it, Conduent’s interest cover 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 growing its EBIT; that’s encouraging. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Conduent’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.
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