Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 note that Ampol Limited (ASX:ALD) does have debt on its balance sheet. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Ampol's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of December 2021, Ampol had AU$1.29b of debt, up from AU$801.5m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of AU$566.3m, its net debt is less, at about AU$723.7m.
How Strong Is Ampol's Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Ampol had liabilities of AU$2.89b falling due within a year, and liabilities of AU$2.61b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had AU$566.3m in cash and AU$1.58b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$3.36b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Ampol has a market capitalization of AU$8.24b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.
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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
With net debt sitting at just 0.58 times EBITDA, Ampol is arguably pretty conservatively geared. And it boasts interest cover of 7.9 times, which is more than adequate. Although Ampol made a loss at the EBIT level, last year, it was also good to see that it generated AU$880m in EBIT over the last twelve months. 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 Ampol 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.
But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So it is important to check how much of its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) converts to actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent year, Ampol recorded free cash flow of 35% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That's not great, when it comes to paying down debt.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Ampol was the fact that it seems able handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, confidently. But the other factors we noted above weren't so encouraging. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow makes us a little nervous about its debt. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about Ampol's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. We've identified 1 warning sign with Ampol , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
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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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.