Is Telstra (ASX:TLS) A Risky Investment?

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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 might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. As with many other companies. Telstra Corporation Limited (ASX:TLS) makes use of debt. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

When Is Debt Dangerous?

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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to sure up its balance sheet. 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. The first step when considering a company’s debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

See our latest analysis for Telstra

How Much Debt Does Telstra Carry?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Telstra had AU$18.6b in debt in December 2018; about the same as the year before. However, it does have AU$541.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about AU$18.0b.

ASX:TLS Historical Debt, July 1st 2019
ASX:TLS Historical Debt, July 1st 2019

A Look At Telstra’s Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Telstra had liabilities of AU$8.06b due within 12 months and liabilities of AU$21.2b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of AU$541.0m as well as receivables valued at AU$5.48b due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$23.2b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Telstra has a huge market capitalization of AU$45.7b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt. Either way, since Telstra does have more debt than cash, it’s worth keeping an eye on its balance sheet.

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). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).

Telstra has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.96 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 4.67 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we’d stop short of calling them problematic. Shareholders should be aware that Telstra’s EBIT was down 34% last year. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Telstra’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 company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it’s worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Telstra recorded free cash flow worth 72% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Telstra’s EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, although the other factors we considered cast it in a significantly better light. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. Taking the abovementioned factors together we do think Telstra’s debt poses some risks to the business. While that debt can boost returns, we think the company has enough leverage now. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if Telstra insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

Of course, if you’re the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don’t hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.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. Thank you for reading.