Stock Analysis

SSE (LON:SSE) Seems To Use Debt Quite Sensibly

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LSE:SSE
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David Iben put it well when he said, 'Volatility is not a risk we care about. What we care about is avoiding the 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. We note that SSE plc (LON:SSE) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. Ultimately, if the company can't fulfill its legal obligations to repay debt, shareholders could walk away with nothing. While that is not too common, we often do see indebted companies permanently diluting shareholders because lenders force them to raise capital at a distressed price. 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.

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What Is SSE's Debt?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that SSE had UK£9.50b of debt in March 2021, down from UK£10.3b, one year before. However, because it has a cash reserve of UK£1.60b, its net debt is less, at about UK£7.90b.

debt-equity-history-analysis
LSE:SSE Debt to Equity History September 24th 2021

How Healthy Is SSE's Balance Sheet?

We can see from the most recent balance sheet that SSE had liabilities of UK£3.51b falling due within a year, and liabilities of UK£11.4b due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of UK£1.60b and UK£1.31b worth of receivables due within a year. So it has liabilities totalling UK£12.0b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.

This is a mountain of leverage even relative to its gargantuan market capitalization of UK£17.0b. This suggests shareholders would be heavily diluted if the company needed to shore up its balance sheet in a hurry.

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). 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).

SSE's debt is 3.5 times its EBITDA, and its EBIT cover its interest expense 6.0 times over. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we'd stop short of calling them problematic. Importantly, SSE grew its EBIT by 72% 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 SSE 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.

Finally, while the tax-man may adore accounting profits, lenders only accept cold hard cash. So it's worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. Over the last three years, SSE reported free cash flow worth 12% of its EBIT, which is really quite low. That limp level of cash conversion undermines its ability to manage and pay down debt.

Our View

When it comes to the balance sheet, the standout positive for SSE was the fact that it seems able to grow its EBIT confidently. However, our other observations weren't so heartening. For example, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow makes us a little nervous about its debt. We would also note that Electric Utilities industry companies like SSE commonly do use debt without problems. When we consider all the factors mentioned above, we do feel a bit cautious about SSE's use of debt. While debt does have its upside in higher potential returns, we think shareholders should definitely consider how debt levels might make the stock more risky. 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. These risks can be hard to spot. Every company has them, and we've spotted 4 warning signs for SSE (of which 2 are a bit concerning!) you should know about.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

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