Stock Analysis

Is AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) A Risky Investment?

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NasdaqGS:AVAV
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Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We note that AeroVironment, Inc. (NASDAQ:AVAV) does have debt on its balance sheet. 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. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. 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, 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.

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How Much Debt Does AeroVironment Carry?

The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at January 2022 AeroVironment had debt of US$190.4m, up from none in one year. However, it also had US$86.5m in cash, and so its net debt is US$103.9m.

debt-equity-history-analysis
NasdaqGS:AVAV Debt to Equity History May 29th 2022

How Strong Is AeroVironment's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, AeroVironment had liabilities of US$87.5m due within 12 months, and liabilities of US$215.1m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$86.5m as well as receivables valued at US$166.3m due within 12 months. So its liabilities outweigh the sum of its cash and (near-term) receivables by US$49.7m.

Of course, AeroVironment has a market capitalization of US$2.37b, so these liabilities are probably manageable. Having said that, it's clear that we should continue to monitor its balance sheet, lest it change for the worse.

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). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.

While AeroVironment has a quite reasonable net debt to EBITDA multiple of 1.7, its interest cover seems weak, at 0.42. In large part that's it has so much depreciation and amortisation. These charges may be non-cash, so they could be excluded when it comes to paying down debt. But the accounting charges are there for a reason -- some assets are seen to be losing value. Either way there's no doubt the stock is using meaningful leverage. Importantly, AeroVironment's EBIT fell a jaw-dropping 96% in the last twelve months. If that decline continues then paying off debt will be harder than selling foie gras at a vegan convention. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if AeroVironment can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

But our final consideration is also important, because a company cannot pay debt with paper profits; it needs cold hard cash. 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, AeroVironment produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 75% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.

Our View

AeroVironment's EBIT growth rate was a real negative on this analysis, as was its interest cover. But its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow was significantly redeeming. Looking at all this data makes us feel a little cautious about AeroVironment's debt levels. While we appreciate debt can enhance returns on equity, we'd suggest that shareholders keep close watch on its debt levels, lest they increase. 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. Be aware that AeroVironment is showing 2 warning signs in our investment analysis , 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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