Howard Marks put it nicely when he said that, rather than worrying about share price volatility, 'The possibility of permanent loss is the risk I worry about... and every practical investor I know worries about.' 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 Alcoa Corporation (NYSE:AA) 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 assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. 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, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first thing to do when considering how much debt a business uses is to look at its cash and debt together.
What Is Alcoa's Debt?
You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of March 2021 Alcoa had US$2.96b of debt, an increase on US$1.80b, over one year. However, it also had US$2.54b in cash, and so its net debt is US$415.0m.
How Healthy Is Alcoa's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Alcoa had liabilities of US$3.22b due within a year, and liabilities of US$6.84b falling due after that. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of US$2.54b as well as receivables valued at US$677.0m due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling US$6.84b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company's market capitalization of US$6.68b, we think shareholders really should watch Alcoa's debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
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.
While Alcoa's low debt to EBITDA ratio of 0.33 suggests only modest use of debt, the fact that EBIT only covered the interest expense by 3.8 times last year does give us pause. But the interest payments are certainly sufficient to have us thinking about how affordable its debt is. Notably Alcoa's EBIT was pretty flat over the last year. We would prefer to see some earnings growth, because that always helps diminish debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Alcoa'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, 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, Alcoa reported free cash flow worth 12% of its EBIT, which is really quite low. For us, cash conversion that low sparks a little paranoia about is ability to extinguish debt.
To be frank both Alcoa's conversion of EBIT to free cash flow and its track record of staying on top of its total liabilities make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its net debt to EBITDA is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the balance sheet and taking into account all these factors, we do believe that debt is making Alcoa stock a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. 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. We've identified 1 warning sign with Alcoa , and understanding them should be part of your investment process.
At the end of the day, it's often better to focus on companies that are free from net debt. You can access our special list of such companies (all with a track record of profit growth). It's free.
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What are the risks and opportunities for Alcoa?
Trading at 51.4% below our estimate of its fair value
Earnings are forecast to grow 73.83% per year
No risks detected for AA from our risks checks.
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Alcoa Corporation, together with its subsidiaries, produces and sells bauxite, alumina, and aluminum products in the United States, Spain, Australia, Iceland, Norway, Brazil, Canada, and internationally.
Excellent balance sheet and good value.