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, Lifestyle International Holdings Limited (HKG:1212) 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. 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. 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 Lifestyle International Holdings’s Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at December 2020 Lifestyle International Holdings had debt of HK$20.6b, up from HK$18.7b in one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of HK$8.99b, its net debt is less, at about HK$11.6b.
How Healthy Is Lifestyle International Holdings’ Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Lifestyle International Holdings had liabilities of HK$10.8b due within 12 months, and liabilities of HK$11.1b due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of HK$8.99b and HK$617.6m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by HK$12.3b.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company’s HK$10.4b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. 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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Lifestyle International Holdings shareholders face the double whammy of a high net debt to EBITDA ratio (13.6), and fairly weak interest coverage, since EBIT is just 2.3 times the interest expense. The debt burden here is substantial. Even worse, Lifestyle International Holdings saw its EBIT tank 57% over the last 12 months. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. 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 Lifestyle International Holdings’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Lifestyle International Holdings generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 85% of its EBIT, more than we’d expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
To be frank both Lifestyle International Holdings’s net debt to EBITDA and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But at least it’s pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that’s encouraging. We’re quite clear that we consider Lifestyle International Holdings to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. So we’re almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner’s fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. 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.