Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' 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. As with many other companies North American Construction Group Ltd. (TSE:NOA) makes use of debt. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. Having said that, the most common situation is where a company manages its debt reasonably well - and to its own advantage. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is North American Construction Group's Net Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that North American Construction Group had debt of CA$290.8m at the end of March 2021, a reduction from CA$381.6m over a year. However, it does have CA$31.7m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about CA$259.0m.
A Look At North American Construction Group's Liabilities
According to the last reported balance sheet, North American Construction Group had liabilities of CA$124.3m due within 12 months, and liabilities of CA$465.4m due beyond 12 months. On the other hand, it had cash of CA$31.7m and CA$70.9m worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling CA$487.1m more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit is considerable relative to its market capitalization of CA$491.1m, so it does suggest shareholders should keep an eye on North American Construction Group's use of debt. 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). 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).
North American Construction Group's net debt is sitting at a very reasonable 1.7 times its EBITDA, while its EBIT covered its interest expense just 3.4 times last year. In large part that's due to the company's significant depreciation and amortisation charges, which arguably mean its EBITDA is a very generous measure of earnings, and its debt may be more of a burden than it first appears. Importantly, North American Construction Group's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 22% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine North American Construction 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.
Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept 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, North American Construction 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.
On the face of it, North American Construction 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. Having said that, its ability handle its debt, based on its EBITDA, isn't such a worry. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like North American Construction Group has too much debt. While some investors love that sort of risky play, it's certainly not our cup of tea. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. Be aware that North American Construction Group is showing 3 warning signs in our investment analysis , you should know about...
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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