De La Rue, Excessive Debt, Victoria and Link’s Debt Monitor

Link Asset Services have issued a note pointing out that De La Rue (DLAR) has net debt that now exceeds its market cap. The high debt in the company and recent falling revenue no doubt accounts for much of the recent fall in the share price, although the report of an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) cannot have helped. But if you read the last interim report which was issued a couple of days ago, there are lots of other points that might put you off investing in the company. For example, it declares the business is in “turnaround” mode so restructuring is being accelerated, and that all of the Chairman, CEO, senior independent director and most of the executive team have left or resigned in the period.

How do you judge whether a company has excessive debt? There are two simple ratios which I look at for companies. The Current Ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities) and the interest cover (operating profits divided by net interest paid). For operating businesses I prefer to see a current ratio higher than 1.4 and interest cover of several times.

Why because companies go bust, or have to come to some accommodation with their bankers or raise urgent equity finance – all of which can be very damaging for equity shareholders, when they run out of cash. A low current ratio or low interest cover means that any sudden or unexpected decline in revenue and profitability can mean they get into financial difficulties. They simply have no buffer against unexpected adversity.

De La Rue’s Current Ratio is only 0.63 according to Stockopedia and as there were negative profits (i.e. losses) in the half year the Interest Cover is zero.

There are some exceptions to the Current Ratio rule so sometimes it is necessary to look more closely at the reasons for a low figure, but De La Rue just looks like a business in some difficulty.

Link Asset Services’ note also points readers to their Debt Monitor (see https://www.linkassetservices.com/our-thinking/uk-plc-debt-monitor ) which gives a comprehensive overview of the indebtedness of UK listed companies. They point out that it has risen by 5.8% to a new record of £433 billion. For comparison that’s only just higher than the Labour Party proposes to borrow for its “Infrastructure Fund”! But it’s worth pointing out that the FTSE is dominated by relatively few very large and traditional companies. They have probably been using financial engineering to enable them to maintain dividends and the result is higher debts. Or they are dedicated to the mantra of having an “efficient” balance sheet where there is significant debt so as to maximise shareholder returns, and have been buying back shares using debt.

Debt has become easier to obtain after the financial crisis of 2008/09 when banks were reluctant to lend at all. Interest rates have also come down making debt very cheap for those with good credit ratings and good security. It’s worth reading the Link Asset report to see which major companies and sectors have the most debt.

In smaller companies, particularly technology companies, there tends to be much less debt partly because they have few fixed assets against which to secure cheap debt. So they find equity less costly and more readily available. Or perhaps they just have more sense in realising that business is essentially uncertain so equity is preferable to debt.

There is relatively little debt in the companies in which I am invested (De La Rue is definitely not one of them) with one exception which is Victoria (VCP). If you wish to be convinced of the wonders of debt financing read the comments of Victoria’s CEO Geoff Wilding in their last Annual Report. In such companies one has to have faith in the management that they can control the risks that come with high debt levels. But most investors get very nervous in such circumstances which is probably why it’s only on a p/e of 10 (and my personal holding is relatively small). That’s so even though it has a Current Ratio of 1.8 and Interest Cover of 1.2 – the latter is too low for comfort in my view.

Of course it depends whether this is a temporary position (say after an acquisition) and how soon the debt is likely to be repaid. So you need to look at the cash flows. In the case of De La Rue it was minus £42 million in the half-year before investing/financing activities which is yet another negative sign, but it was a positive £38 million at Victoria in their half-year results announced on the same day. Clearly two very different businesses!

Note that there are some other financial ratios that you can look at to see the risk profile of a company but as always, a few simple things that you actually pay attention to plus getting an understanding of the business trends are to my mind more important.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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