July 18, 2024

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt – which is usually involved in bankruptcies – is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. As with many other companies Santos Limited (ASX:STO) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
Check out our latest analysis for Santos
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2022 Santos had debt of US$6.27b, up from US$5.22b in one year. However, it also had US$3.36b in cash, and so its net debt is US$2.91b.
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Santos had liabilities of US$3.85b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$11.4b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$3.36b and US$851.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$11.0b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit is considerable relative to its very significant market capitalization of US$17.7b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Santos' use of debt. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.
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). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Santos has a low net debt to EBITDA ratio of only 0.76. And its EBIT covers its interest expense a whopping 15.6 times over. So we're pretty relaxed about its super-conservative use of debt. Better yet, Santos grew its EBIT by 246% last year, which is an impressive improvement. That boost will make it even easier to pay down debt going forward. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Santos'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.
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. Over the last three years, Santos recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 95% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That positions it well to pay down debt if desirable to do so.
The good news is that Santos's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its level of total liabilities. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Santos's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet – far from it. For example, we've discovered 3 warning signs for Santos (2 can't be ignored!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.
Have feedback on this article? Concerned about the content? Get in touch with us directly. Alternatively, email editorial-team (at) simplywallst.com.

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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Santos Limited explores for, develops, produces, transports, and markets hydrocarbons for homes and businesses in Australia and the Asia Pacific.
The Snowflake is a visual investment summary with the score of each axis being calculated by 6 checks in 5 areas.
Read more about these checks in the individual report sections or in our analysis model.
Excellent balance sheet and good value.
Simply Wall St's Editorial Team provides unbiased, factual reporting on global stocks using in-depth fundamental analysis.
Find out more about our editorial guidelines and team.
Santos Limited explores for, develops, produces, transports, and markets hydrocarbons for homes and businesses in Australia and the Asia Pacific.
The Snowflake is a visual investment summary with the score of each axis being calculated by 6 checks in 5 areas.
Read more about these checks in the individual report sections or in our analysis model.
Excellent balance sheet and good value.
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