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. When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We can see that Southwestern Energy Company (NYSE:SWN) does use debt in its business. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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.
What Is Southwestern Energy’s Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Southwestern Energy had US$2.28b in debt in March 2020; about the same as the year before. And it doesn’t have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.
How Strong Is Southwestern Energy’s Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Southwestern Energy had liabilities of US$914.0m due within 12 months and liabilities of US$2.66b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of US$5.00m and US$292.0m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling US$3.28b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit casts a shadow over the US$1.73b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we’d watch its balance sheet closely, without a doubt. After all, Southwestern Energy would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
We measure a company’s debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). This way, we consider both the absolute quantum of the debt, as well as the interest rates paid on it.
Southwestern Energy’s net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 1.9 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its strong interest cover of 10.1 times, makes us even more comfortable. Unfortunately, Southwestern Energy’s EBIT flopped 10% over the last four quarters. If that sort of decline is not arrested, then the managing its debt will be harder than selling broccoli flavoured ice-cream for a premium. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Southwestern Energy 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.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it’s worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, Southwestern Energy recorded negative free cash flow, in total. Debt is usually more expensive, and almost always more risky in the hands of a company with negative free cash flow. Shareholders ought to hope for an improvement.
On the face of it, Southwestern Energy’s conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its level of total liabilities was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least it’s pretty decent at covering its interest expense with its EBIT; that’s encouraging. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Southwestern Energy has too much debt. That sort of riskiness is ok for some, but it certainly doesn’t float our boat. 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. Be aware that Southwestern Energy is showing 1 warning sign in our investment analysis , you should know about…
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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