TransAlta (TSE:TA) Has A Somewhat Strained Balance Sheet

By
Simply Wall St
Published
September 26, 2021
TSX:TA
Source: Shutterstock

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.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. We note that TransAlta Corporation (TSE:TA) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

When Is Debt A Problem?

Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. 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. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for TransAlta

What Is TransAlta's Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of June 2021, TransAlta had CA$3.74b of debt, up from CA$3.29b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it also had CA$642.0m in cash, and so its net debt is CA$3.10b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
TSX:TA Debt to Equity History September 26th 2021

How Healthy Is TransAlta's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that TransAlta had liabilities of CA$1.07b falling due within a year, and liabilities of CA$5.07b due beyond that. Offsetting this, it had CA$642.0m in cash and CA$695.0m in receivables that were due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by CA$4.80b.

When you consider that this deficiency exceeds the company's CA$3.54b 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).

While TransAlta's debt to EBITDA ratio (3.6) suggests that it uses some debt, its interest cover is very weak, at 0.38, suggesting high leverage. 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. So shareholders should probably be aware that interest expenses appear to have really impacted the business lately. Worse, TransAlta's EBIT was down 22% 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. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine TransAlta'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.

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. Happily for any shareholders, TransAlta actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT over the last three years. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.

Our View

On the face of it, TransAlta's interest cover 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. But at least it's pretty decent at converting EBIT to free cash flow; that's encouraging. We're quite clear that we consider TransAlta 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. Given our hesitation about the stock, it would be good to know if TransAlta insiders have sold any shares recently. You click here to find out if insiders have sold recently.

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.

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