We Think Sysco (NYSE:SYY) Is Taking Some Risk With Its Debt

Sysco Corporation +1.44%

Sysco Corporation

SYY

76.73

+1.44%

Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 Sysco Corporation (NYSE:SYY) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth 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 Sysco

What Is Sysco's Net Debt?

As you can see below, Sysco had US$10.9b of debt, at September 2023, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has US$569.1m in cash leading to net debt of about US$10.3b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NYSE:SYY Debt to Equity History December 29th 2023

A Look At Sysco's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Sysco had liabilities of US$8.45b due within 12 months and liabilities of US$12.7b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$569.1m as well as receivables valued at US$5.34b due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$15.2b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Sysco has a very large market capitalization of US$36.8b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without 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.

Sysco's debt is 2.9 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 5.1 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. Importantly Sysco's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. Ideally it can diminish its debt load by kick-starting earnings growth. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Sysco can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

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 most recent three years, Sysco recorded free cash flow worth 51% 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

While Sysco's level of total liabilities makes us cautious about it, its track record of managing its debt, based on its EBITDA, is no better. But its not so bad at converting EBIT to free cash flow. Looking at all the angles mentioned above, it does seem to us that Sysco 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. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 1 warning sign for Sysco that you should be aware of.

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.

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