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.’ 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. Importantly, Super Micro Computer, Inc. (NASDAQ:SMCI) does carry debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. 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. The first step when considering a company’s debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Super Micro Computer’s Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of December 2021, Super Micro Computer had US$315.9m of debt, up from US$45.5m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had US$247.4m in cash, and so its net debt is US$68.5m.
A Look At Super Micro Computer’s Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Super Micro Computer had liabilities of US$1.20b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$290.2m due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$247.4m in cash and US$617.5m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$624.8m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Super Micro Computer has a market capitalization of US$2.14b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But it’s clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without dilution.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Super Micro Computer has net debt of just 0.41 times EBITDA, suggesting it could ramp leverage without breaking a sweat. And remarkably, despite having net debt, it actually received more in interest over the last twelve months than it had to pay. So there’s no doubt this company can take on debt while staying cool as a cucumber. Another good sign is that Super Micro Computer has been able to increase its EBIT by 24% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down debt. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Super Micro Computer can strengthen its balance sheet over time.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it’s worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Considering the last three years, Super Micro Computer actually recorded a cash outflow, overall. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.
Both Super Micro Computer’s ability to to cover its interest expense with its EBIT and its net debt to EBITDA gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. But truth be told its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow had us nibbling our nails. Considering this range of data points, we think Super Micro Computer is in a good position to manage its debt levels. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring.