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. As with many other companies Wharf Real Estate Investment Company Limited (HKG:1997) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

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. 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, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Wharf Real Estate Investment

How Much Debt Does Wharf Real Estate Investment Carry?

As you can see below, Wharf Real Estate Investment had HK$53.4b of debt at June 2021, down from HK$58.1b a year prior. However, it also had HK$2.95b in cash, and so its net debt is HK$50.4b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
SEHK:1997 Debt to Equity History October 1st 2021

How Strong Is Wharf Real Estate Investment’s Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Wharf Real Estate Investment had liabilities of HK$11.5b due within 12 months, and liabilities of HK$54.6b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of HK$2.95b as well as receivables valued at HK$1.25b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling HK$61.9b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Wharf Real Estate Investment has a huge market capitalization of HK$122.4b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.

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.

Wharf Real Estate Investment’s net debt to EBITDA ratio is 5.2 which suggests rather high debt levels, but its interest cover of 9.6 times suggests the debt is easily serviced. Overall we’d say it seems likely the company is carrying a fairly heavy swag of debt. Unfortunately, Wharf Real Estate Investment’s EBIT flopped 14% over the last four quarters. If earnings continue to decline at that rate then handling the debt will be more difficult than taking three children under 5 to a fancy pants restaurant. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Wharf Real Estate Investment’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you’re focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Wharf Real Estate Investment recorded free cash flow worth 78% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Neither Wharf Real Estate Investment’s ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, nor its EBIT growth rate gave us confidence in its ability to take on more debt. But the good news is it seems to be able to convert EBIT to free cash flow with ease. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Wharf Real Estate Investment is a somewhat risky investment as a result of its debt. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since leverage can boost returns on equity, but it is something to be aware of. 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, we’ve discovered 1 warning sign for Wharf Real Estate Investment that you should be aware of before investing here.

When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don’t even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.

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.

Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

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