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 Telstra Corporation Limited (ASX:TLS) does have debt on its balance sheet. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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 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. 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 thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Telstra Carry?
As you can see below, Telstra had AU$17.3b 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 AU$647.0m in cash, and so its net debt is AU$16.7b.
A Look At Telstra’s Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, Telstra had liabilities of AU$9.55b due within 12 months, and liabilities of AU$18.5b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had AU$647.0m in cash and AU$5.40b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$22.0b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Telstra has a very large market capitalization of AU$41.7b, 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.
Telstra’s debt is 2.7 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 4.6 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we’d stop short of calling them problematic. The bad news is that Telstra saw its EBIT decline by 20% over the last year. 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 it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Telstra’s ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. 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’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 74% 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.
Telstra’s struggle to grow its EBIT had us second guessing its balance sheet strength, but the other data-points we considered were relatively redeeming. For example its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was refreshing. When we consider all the factors discussed, it seems to us that Telstra is taking some risks with its use of debt. So while that leverage does boost returns on equity, we wouldn’t really want to see it increase from here. In light of our reservations about the company’s balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares 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.
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