Is Elia Group (EBR:ELI) Using Too Much Debt?

By
Simply Wall St
Published
October 27, 2021
ENXTBR:ELI
Source: Shutterstock

The external fund manager backed by Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, Li Lu, makes no bones about it when he says '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. We can see that Elia Group SA/NV (EBR:ELI) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?

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. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.

Check out our latest analysis for Elia Group

What Is Elia Group's Debt?

The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Elia Group had €7.84b in debt in June 2021; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has €2.02b in cash leading to net debt of about €5.83b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
ENXTBR:ELI Debt to Equity History October 28th 2021

How Healthy Is Elia Group's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Elia Group had liabilities of €3.13b due within 12 months and liabilities of €8.37b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €2.02b and €683.5m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total €8.81b more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's €7.00b market capitalization, you might well be inclined to review the balance sheet intently. In the scenario where the company had to clean up its balance sheet quickly, it seems likely shareholders would suffer extensive dilution.

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). 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).

With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of 6.5, it's fair to say Elia Group does have a significant amount of debt. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 4.6 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. Shareholders should be aware that Elia Group's EBIT was down 22% last year. If that earnings trend continues then paying off its debt will be about as easy as herding cats on to a roller coaster. 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 Elia Group'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 we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Elia Group saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, Elia Group's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow left us tentative about the stock, and its EBIT growth rate was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But at least its interest cover is not so bad. It's also worth noting that Elia Group is in the Electric Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. After considering the datapoints discussed, we think Elia Group has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. 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. For example, we've discovered 1 warning sign for Elia Group that you should be aware of before investing here.

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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