Is TC Energy (TSE:TRP) Using Too Much Debt?

David Iben put it well when he said, ‘Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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 TC Energy Corporation (TSE:TRP) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

Why Does Debt Bring Risk?

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. Ultimately, if the company can’t fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. When we think about a company’s use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for TC Energy

How Much Debt Does TC Energy Carry?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2019, TC Energy had CA$49.8b of debt, up from CA$47.0b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn’t have much cash.

TSX:TRP Historical Debt, October 15th 2019
TSX:TRP Historical Debt, October 15th 2019

A Look At TC Energy’s Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that TC Energy had liabilities of CA$13.0b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$53.8b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CA$964.0m in cash and CA$2.33b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling CA$63.5b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s massive market capitalization of CA$63.0b, we think shareholders really should watch TC Energy’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.

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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.6, it’s fair to say TC Energy does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 2.7 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. On the other hand, TC Energy grew its EBIT by 24% in the last year. If sustained, this growth should make that debt evaporate like a scarce drinking water during an unnaturally hot summer. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine TC Energy’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 always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, TC Energy saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.

Our View

To be frank both TC Energy’s net debt to EBITDA and its track record of converting EBIT to free cash flow make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Overall, it seems to us that TC Energy’s balance sheet is really quite a risk to the business. So we’re almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner’s fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. In light of our reservations about the company’s balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.

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.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.