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.’ 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 Alaska Communications Systems Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ALSK) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
Generally speaking, debt only becomes a real problem when a company can’t easily pay it off, either by raising capital or with its own cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. 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.
What Is Alaska Communications Systems Group’s Debt?
As you can see below, Alaska Communications Systems Group had US$175.3m of debt, at June 2019, which is about the same the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. However, it also had US$24.1m in cash, and so its net debt is US$151.2m.
A Look At Alaska Communications Systems Group’s Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Alaska Communications Systems Group had liabilities of US$49.1m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$320.6m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$24.1m in cash and US$27.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$318.0m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This deficit casts a shadow over the US$93.1m company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. At the end of the day, Alaska Communications Systems Group would probably need a major re-capitalization if its creditors were to demand repayment.
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.
While we wouldn’t worry about Alaska Communications Systems Group’s net debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.8, we think its super-low interest cover of 1.6 times is a sign of 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. It seems clear that the cost of borrowing money is negatively impacting returns for shareholders, of late. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Alaska Communications Systems Group saw its EBIT drop by 13% over the last twelve months. If things keep going like that, handling the debt will about as easy as bundling an angry house cat into its travel box. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is Alaska Communications Systems Group’s earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So if you’re keen to discover more about its earnings, it might be worth checking out this graph of its long term earnings trend.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Alaska Communications Systems Group’s free cash flow amounted to 32% of its EBIT, less than we’d expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.
To be frank both Alaska Communications Systems Group’s interest cover and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. Having said that, its ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, isn’t such a worry. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Alaska Communications Systems Group has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it’s certainly not our cup of tea. Given the risks around Alaska Communications Systems Group’s use of debt, the sensible thing to do is to check if insiders have been unloading the stock.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don’t even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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