Stock Analysis

Here's Why Aecon Group (TSE:ARE) Has A Meaningful Debt Burden

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. Importantly, Aecon Group Inc. (TSE:ARE) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt Dangerous?

Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

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How Much Debt Does Aecon Group Carry?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2022, Aecon Group had CA$815.7m of debt, up from CA$587.3m a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, because it has a cash reserve of CA$537.4m, its net debt is less, at about CA$278.3m.

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TSX:ARE Debt to Equity History September 9th 2022

A Look At Aecon Group's Liabilities

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Aecon Group had liabilities of CA$1.68b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$925.7m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$537.4m and CA$1.58b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total CA$492.5m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

This is a mountain of leverage relative to its market capitalization of CA$713.2m. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

While we wouldn't worry about Aecon Group's net debt to EBITDA ratio of 3.6, we think its super-low interest cover of 0.78 times is a sign of high leverage. It seems that the business incurs large depreciation and amortisation charges, so maybe its debt load is heavier than it would first appear, since EBITDA is arguably a generous measure of earnings. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Worse, Aecon Group's EBIT was down 56% over the last year. If earnings continue to follow that trajectory, paying off that debt load will be harder than convincing us to run a marathon in the rain. 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 Aecon Group'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 business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. Looking at the most recent three years, Aecon Group recorded free cash flow of 36% of its EBIT, which is weaker than we'd expect. That weak cash conversion makes it more difficult to handle indebtedness.

Our View

To be frank both Aecon Group's interest cover and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. Having said that, its ability to convert EBIT to free cash flow isn't such a worry. We're quite clear that we consider Aecon Group to be really rather risky, as a result of its balance sheet health. So we're almost as wary of this stock as a hungry kitten is about falling into its owner's fish pond: once bitten, twice shy, as they say. 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. For instance, we've identified 3 warning signs for Aecon Group (1 doesn't sit too well with us) you should be aware of.

At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.

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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.