Stock Analysis

These 4 Measures Indicate That Aecon Group (TSE:ARE) Is Using Debt Reasonably Well

TSX:ARE
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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.' 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 assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. 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 Debt?

As you can see below, Aecon Group had CA$587.3m of debt at June 2021, down from CA$618.9m a year prior. On the flip side, it has CA$562.7m in cash leading to net debt of about CA$24.6m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:ARE Debt to Equity History September 9th 2021

How Healthy Is Aecon Group's Balance Sheet?

Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that Aecon Group had liabilities of CA$1.47b due within 12 months and liabilities of CA$897.3m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$562.7m and CA$1.40b worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total CA$403.8m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.

Aecon Group has a market capitalization of CA$1.32b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. But it's clear that we should definitely closely examine whether it can manage its debt without 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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

Given net debt is only 0.20 times EBITDA, it is initially surprising to see that Aecon Group's EBIT has low interest coverage of 2.4 times. So one way or the other, it's clear the debt levels are not trivial. Importantly, Aecon Group grew its EBIT by 36% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its 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 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.

Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. In the last three years, Aecon Group created free cash flow amounting to 12% of its EBIT, an uninspiring performance. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.

Our View

Both Aecon Group's ability to to grow its EBIT and its net debt to EBITDA gave us comfort that it can handle its debt. But truth be told its interest cover had us nibbling our nails. Considering this range of data points, we think Aecon Group is in a good position to manage its debt levels. But a word of caution: we think debt levels are high enough to justify ongoing monitoring. 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. We've identified 2 warning signs with Aecon Group (at least 1 which is a bit concerning) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.

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.
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