Stock Analysis

Ashtead Group (LON:AHT) Seems To Use Debt Quite Sensibly

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LSE:AHT
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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.' 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, Ashtead Group plc (LON:AHT) does carry debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

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. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of 'creative destruction' where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. 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. By replacing dilution, though, debt can be an extremely good tool for businesses that need capital to invest in growth at high rates of return. When we examine debt levels, we first consider both cash and debt levels, together.

See our latest analysis for Ashtead Group

What Is Ashtead Group's Net Debt?

As you can see below, at the end of January 2022, Ashtead Group had US$5.05b of debt, up from US$4.37b a year ago. Click the image for more detail. Net debt is about the same, since the it doesn't have much cash.

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LSE:AHT Debt to Equity History April 7th 2022

How Strong Is Ashtead Group's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, Ashtead Group had liabilities of US$1.30b due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$8.55b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting this, it had US$34.6m in cash and US$1.50b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$8.32b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Ashtead Group has a huge market capitalization of US$26.4b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. 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.

Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 1.5 and interest cover of 6.6 times, it seems to us that Ashtead Group is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. On top of that, Ashtead Group grew its EBIT by 39% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its debt. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if Ashtead 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.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. So we always check how much of that EBIT is translated into free cash flow. Over the most recent three years, Ashtead Group recorded free cash flow worth 80% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This free cash flow puts the company in a good position to pay down debt, when appropriate.

Our View

Ashtead Group's EBIT growth rate suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is also very heartening. Looking at the bigger picture, we think Ashtead Group's use of debt seems quite reasonable and we're not concerned about it. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For instance, we've identified 2 warning signs for Ashtead Group that you should be aware of.

Of course, if you're the type of investor who prefers buying stocks without the burden of debt, then don't hesitate to discover our exclusive list of net cash growth stocks, today.

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