Stock Analysis

Aecon Group (TSE:ARE) Takes On Some Risk With Its Use Of Debt

TSX:ARE
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' It's only natural to consider a company's balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. As with many other companies Aecon Group Inc. (TSE:ARE) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?

When Is Debt A Problem?

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. 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. 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.

View our latest analysis for Aecon Group

What Is Aecon Group's Net Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that Aecon Group had CA$642.8m of debt in March 2023, down from CA$690.6m, one year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of CA$359.2m, its net debt is less, at about CA$283.7m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:ARE Debt to Equity History April 27th 2023

How Strong Is Aecon Group's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Aecon Group had liabilities of CA$2.39b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$296.5m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$359.2m and CA$1.74b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total CA$588.8m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of CA$755.0m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on Aecon Group's use of debt. Should its lenders demand that it shore up the balance sheet, shareholders would likely face severe 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).

While Aecon Group has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 2.0, its interest cover seems weak, at 1.4. This does suggest the company is paying fairly high interest rates. In any case, it's safe to say the company has meaningful debt. Also relevant is that Aecon Group has grown its EBIT by a very respectable 30% in the last year, thus enhancing its ability to pay down debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Aecon Group can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.

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, Aecon Group saw substantial negative free cash flow, in total. While that may be a result of expenditure for growth, it does make the debt far more risky.

Our View

On the face of it, Aecon Group's interest cover left us tentative about the stock, and its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was no more enticing than the one empty restaurant on the busiest night of the year. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Aecon Group stock a bit risky. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd generally feel more comfortable with less leverage. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example Aecon Group has 3 warning signs (and 1 which is concerning) we think you should know about.

If, after all that, you're more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.

Valuation is complex, but we're helping make it simple.

Find out whether Aecon Group is potentially over or undervalued by checking out our comprehensive analysis, which includes fair value estimates, risks and warnings, dividends, insider transactions and financial health.

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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.