Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that ‘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. We note that SFL Corporation Ltd. (NYSE:SFL) does have debt on its balance sheet. 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. Ultimately, if the company can’t fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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.
What Is SFL’s Net Debt?
As you can see below, SFL had US$1.62b of debt, at March 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$237.3m, its net debt is less, at about US$1.39b.
A Look At SFL’s Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that SFL had liabilities of US$610.1m falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$1.63b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$237.3m as well as receivables valued at US$3.64m due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$2.00b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$845.9m 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’d watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. At the end of the day, SFL would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
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.
While SFL’s debt to EBITDA ratio (4.7) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.4, suggesting high leverage. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. More concerning, SFL saw its EBIT drop by 5.8% in the last twelve months. If that earnings trend continues the company will face an uphill battle to pay off its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine SFL’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, SFL saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.
To be frank both SFL’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. And even its net debt to EBITDA fails to inspire much confidence. Considering all the factors previously mentioned, we think that SFL really is carrying too much debt. To our minds, that means the stock is rather high risk, and probably one to avoid; but to each their own (investing) style. 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.