Stock Analysis

Is Woodside Energy Group (ASX:WDS) Using Too Much Debt?

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ASX:WDS
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Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, '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. As with many other companies Woodside Energy Group Ltd (ASX:WDS) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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 usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

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What Is Woodside Energy Group's Net Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Woodside Energy Group had US$5.38b in debt in June 2022; about the same as the year before. However, it also had US$5.11b in cash, and so its net debt is US$272.0m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
ASX:WDS Debt to Equity History October 2nd 2022

How Healthy Is Woodside Energy Group's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Woodside Energy Group had liabilities of US$5.95b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$15.6b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had US$5.11b in cash and US$1.86b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total US$14.6b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit isn't so bad because Woodside Energy Group is worth a massive US$38.7b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt. But either way, Woodside Energy Group has virtually no net debt, so it's fair to say it does not have a heavy debt load!

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Woodside Energy Group has very little debt (net of cash), and boasts a debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.045 and EBIT of 71.2 times the interest expense. So relative to past earnings, the debt load seems trivial. Even more impressive was the fact that Woodside Energy Group grew its EBIT by 629% over twelve months. That boost will make it even easier to pay down debt going forward. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Woodside Energy Group'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.

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. During the last three years, Woodside Energy Group produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 55% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

The good news is that Woodside Energy Group's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. And the good news does not stop there, as its EBIT growth rate also supports that impression! Zooming out, Woodside Energy Group seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 4 warning signs for Woodside Energy Group (of which 2 can't be ignored!) you should know about.

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.

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