Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, ‘The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about… and every practical investor I know worries about. 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 can see that RAK Petroleum plc (OB:RAKP) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well – and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company’s debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is RAK Petroleum’s Net Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 RAK Petroleum had US$1.10b of debt, an increase on US$638.5m, over one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of US$596.2m, its net debt is less, at about US$502.9m.
How Strong Is RAK Petroleum’s Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that RAK Petroleum had liabilities of US$317.4m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$1.72b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$596.2m as well as receivables valued at US$454.4m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$989.7m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
The deficiency here weighs heavily on the US$328.8m company itself, as if a child were struggling under the weight of an enormous back-pack full of books, his sports gear, and a trumpet. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, RAK Petroleum would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 0.70 and interest cover of 6.2 times, it seems to us that RAK Petroleum is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. It is just as well that RAK Petroleum’s load is not too heavy, because its EBIT was down 24% over the last year. Falling earnings (if the trend continues) could eventually make even modest debt quite risky. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is RAK Petroleum’s earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So when considering debt, it’s definitely worth looking at the earnings trend. Click here for an interactive snapshot.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don’t cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, RAK Petroleum recorded free cash flow of 48% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we’d expect. That’s not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
To be frank both RAK Petroleum’s EBIT growth rate and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its net debt to EBITDA is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. We’re quite clear that we consider RAK Petroleum to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. 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. There’s no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. Take risks, for example – RAK Petroleum has 1 warning sign we think you should be aware of.
At the end of the day, it’s often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It’s free.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.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.
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