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 might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. We note that Sysco Corporation (NYSE:SYY) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Sysco Carry?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Sysco had US$10.4b of debt in July 2022, down from US$11.0b, one year before. However, it does have US$867.1m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about US$9.55b.
A Look At Sysco's Liabilities
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Sysco had liabilities of US$8.75b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$11.9b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$867.1m as well as receivables valued at US$4.87b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$14.9b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Sysco has a very large market capitalization of US$40.9b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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.
Sysco's debt is 2.9 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.1 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. Looking on the bright side, Sysco boosted its EBIT by a silky 55% in the last year. 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 Sysco 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, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. During the last three years, Sysco produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 68% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.
Sysco's EBIT growth rate suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its interest cover. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that Sysco can handle its debt fairly comfortably. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it's worth keeping an eye on this one. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example - Sysco has 1 warning sign we think you should be aware of.
If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.
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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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