Stock Analysis

We Think Ashtead Group (LON:AHT) Can Stay On Top Of Its Debt

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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.' So it might be obvious that you need to consider debt, when you think about how risky any given stock is, because too much debt can sink a company. As with many other companies Ashtead Group plc (LON:AHT) makes use of debt. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

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. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for Ashtead Group

How Much Debt Does Ashtead Group Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that Ashtead Group had debt of US$4.05b at the end of July 2021, a reduction from US$4.90b over a year. And it doesn't have much cash, so its net debt is about the same.

debt-equity-history-analysis
LSE:AHT Debt to Equity History September 23rd 2021

How Strong Is Ashtead Group's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Ashtead Group had liabilities of US$1.33b falling due within a year, and liabilities of US$7.20b due beyond that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$30.0m as well as receivables valued at US$1.21b due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$7.29b.

While this might seem like a lot, it is not so bad since Ashtead Group has a huge market capitalization of US$36.5b, and so it could probably strengthen its balance sheet by raising capital if it needed to. But we definitely want to keep our eyes open to indications that its debt is bringing too much risk.

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).

Looking at its net debt to EBITDA of 1.2 and interest cover of 6.6 times, it seems to us that Ashtead Group is probably using debt in a pretty reasonable way. So we'd recommend keeping a close eye on the impact financing costs are having on the business. Another good sign is that Ashtead Group has been able to increase its EBIT by 20% in twelve months, making it easier to pay down 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 Ashtead 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 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 78% of its EBIT, which is around normal, given free cash flow excludes interest and tax. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

Happily, Ashtead Group's impressive conversion of EBIT to free cash flow implies it has the upper hand on its debt. And that's just the beginning of the good news since its EBIT growth rate 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. While debt does bring risk, when used wisely it can also bring a higher return on equity. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. To that end, you should be aware of the 2 warning signs we've spotted with Ashtead Group .

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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