Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that '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. Importantly, Aurizon Holdings Limited (ASX:AZJ) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.
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. 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 Aurizon Holdings's Net Debt?
As you can see below, Aurizon Holdings had AU$3.80b of debt, at June 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has AU$148.8m in cash leading to net debt of about AU$3.66b.
How Healthy Is Aurizon Holdings' Balance Sheet?
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Aurizon Holdings had liabilities of AU$717.2m falling due within a year, and liabilities of AU$4.77b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had AU$148.8m in cash and AU$501.6m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities total AU$4.84b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of AU$6.79b. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe dilution.
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.
Aurizon Holdings's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 2.5 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 6.1 times last year. While that doesn't worry us too much, it does suggest the interest payments are somewhat of a burden. Importantly Aurizon Holdings's EBIT was essentially flat over the last twelve months. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. 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 Aurizon Holdings 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.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the last three years, Aurizon Holdings recorded free cash flow worth a fulsome 84% of its EBIT, which is stronger than we'd usually expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for Aurizon Holdings was the fact that it seems able to convert EBIT to free cash flow confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For example, its level of total liabilities makes us a little nervous about its debt. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about Aurizon Holdings's use of debt. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. 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 3 warning signs for Aurizon Holdings (of which 1 shouldn'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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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.
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