Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' 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 can see that United Internet AG (ETR:UTDI) does use debt in its business. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
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 usual (but still expensive) situation is where a company must dilute shareholders at a cheap share price simply to get debt under control. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. When we think about a company's use of debt, we first look at cash and debt together.
What Is United Internet's Net Debt?
As you can see below, at the end of September 2021, United Internet had €1.98b of debt, up from €1.49b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. However, it does have €188.0m in cash offsetting this, leading to net debt of about €1.79b.
How Healthy Is United Internet's Balance Sheet?
Zooming in on the latest balance sheet data, we can see that United Internet had liabilities of €1.61b due within 12 months and liabilities of €3.17b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of €188.0m as well as receivables valued at €1.04b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by €3.54b.
This deficit isn't so bad because United Internet is worth €6.35b, and thus could probably raise enough capital to shore up its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
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).
We'd say that United Internet's moderate net debt to EBITDA ratio ( being 1.6), indicates prudence when it comes to debt. And its strong interest cover of 59.4 times, makes us even more comfortable. Also good is that United Internet grew its EBIT at 11% over the last year, further increasing its ability to manage debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine United Internet'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. During the last three years, United Internet produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 62% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
The good news is that United Internet's demonstrated ability to cover its interest expense with its EBIT delights us like a fluffy puppy does a toddler. But, on a more sombre note, we are a little concerned by its level of total liabilities. Looking at all the aforementioned factors together, it strikes us that United Internet can handle its debt fairly comfortably. Of course, while this leverage can enhance returns on equity, it does bring more risk, so it's worth keeping an eye on this one. 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 - United Internet has 1 warning sign we think 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.