Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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. We can see that Canadian Utilities Limited (TSE:CU) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
Why Does Debt Bring Risk?
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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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 examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.
What Is Canadian Utilities's Debt?
The chart below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Canadian Utilities had CA$9.17b in debt in September 2020; about the same as the year before. On the flip side, it has CA$980.0m in cash leading to net debt of about CA$8.19b.
How Strong Is Canadian Utilities' Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Canadian Utilities had liabilities of CA$914.0m due within 12 months, and liabilities of CA$12.5b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had CA$980.0m in cash and CA$501.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$11.9b.
When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's CA$8.49b 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).
Canadian Utilities has a rather high debt to EBITDA ratio of 5.2 which suggests a meaningful debt load. But the good news is that it boasts fairly comforting interest cover of 2.6 times, suggesting it can responsibly service its obligations. Investors should also be troubled by the fact that Canadian Utilities saw its EBIT drop by 19% over the last twelve months. If that's the way things keep going handling the debt load will be like delivering hot coffees on a pogo stick. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Canadian Utilities can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. Over the last three years, Canadian Utilities reported free cash flow worth 13% of its EBIT, which is really quite low. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
To be frank both Canadian Utilities's level of total liabilities and its track record of (not) growing its EBIT make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. And furthermore, its interest cover also fails to instill confidence. It's also worth noting that Canadian Utilities is in the Integrated Utilities industry, which is often considered to be quite defensive. Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, it looks like Canadian Utilities 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. For example, we've discovered 3 warning signs for Canadian Utilities (1 is potentially serious!) that you should be aware of before investing here.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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