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 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. We note that Meridian Energy Limited (NZSE:MEL) does have debt on its balance sheet. But the more important question is: how much risk is that debt creating?
When Is Debt A Problem?
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. Of course, the upside of debt is that it often represents cheap capital, especially when it replaces dilution in a company with the ability to reinvest at high rates of return. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
How Much Debt Does Meridian Energy Carry?
As you can see below, Meridian Energy had NZ$1.68b of debt, at June 2021, which is about the same as the year before. You can click the chart for greater detail. On the flip side, it has NZ$148.0m in cash leading to net debt of about NZ$1.53b.
How Healthy Is Meridian Energy's Balance Sheet?
According to the last reported balance sheet, Meridian Energy had liabilities of NZ$1.11b due within 12 months, and liabilities of NZ$3.52b due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of NZ$148.0m as well as receivables valued at NZ$516.0m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by NZ$3.97b.
Meridian Energy has a market capitalization of NZ$12.5b, so it could very likely raise cash to ameliorate its balance sheet, if the need arose. However, it is still worthwhile taking a close look at its ability to pay off debt.
In order to size up a company's debt relative to its earnings, we calculate its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) divided by its interest expense (its 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).
Meridian Energy's net debt to EBITDA ratio of about 1.7 suggests only moderate use of debt. And its commanding EBIT of 119 times its interest expense, implies the debt load is as light as a peacock feather. Importantly, Meridian Energy grew its EBIT by 39% over the last twelve months, and that growth will make it easier to handle its 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 Meridian Energy'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.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So the logical step is to look at the proportion of that EBIT that is matched by actual free cash flow. During the last three years, Meridian Energy generated free cash flow amounting to a very robust 87% of its EBIT, more than we'd expect. That puts it in a very strong position to pay down debt.
Meridian Energy's interest cover suggests it can handle its debt as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal against an under 14's goalkeeper. And the good news does not stop there, as its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow also supports that impression! Zooming out, Meridian Energy seems to use debt quite reasonably; and that gets the nod from us. After all, sensible leverage can boost returns on equity. The balance sheet is clearly the area to focus on when you are analysing debt. But ultimately, every company can contain risks that exist outside of the balance sheet. We've identified 3 warning signs with Meridian Energy (at least 2 which are significant) , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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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.