September 29, 2022

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 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. We note that Steelcase Inc. (NYSE:SCS) does have debt on its balance sheet. 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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
Check out our latest analysis for Steelcase
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Steelcase had US$482.4m in debt in May 2022; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$116.7m in cash, and so its net debt is US$365.7m.
According to the last reported balance sheet, Steelcase had liabilities of US$587.3m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$785.4m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$116.7m in cash and US$365.4m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$890.6m.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of US$1.05b, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Steelcase's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
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.
While Steelcase's debt to EBITDA ratio (2.9) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 1.7, suggesting high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Even worse, Steelcase saw its EBIT tank 49% 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. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Steelcase 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Steelcase recorded free cash flow worth 54% 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.
On the face of it, Steelcase's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, it seems to us that Steelcase's balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. For this reason we're pretty cautious about the stock, and we think shareholders should keep a close eye on its liquidity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. For example Steelcase has 4 warning signs (and 2 which shouldn't be ignored) we think you should know about.
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.
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.

Find out whether Steelcase is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.
Simply Wall St's Editorial Team provides unbiased, factual reporting on global stocks using in-depth fundamental analysis.
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Steelcase Inc. provides a portfolio of furniture and architectural products in the United States and internationally.
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.
Good value with reasonable growth potential.
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.
Steelcase Inc. provides a portfolio of furniture and architectural products in the United States and internationally.
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.
Good value with reasonable growth potential.
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